A Reshaped, Modern Playoff Format with Fresh Drama

Why should we do this anyways? The old format works fine.

Now hear me out. I’m not saying the current playoff formatting is broken. I think it’s pretty optimal for scheduling purposes, but it’s just that. There are underlying issues we can resolve with a different format. The NBA is one of the more progressive sports leagues out there, readily doing away with things like regional titles and how winning subregions affect playoff seeding. But we can do even better. How about adding some variability for a more fun fan experience?  We can reward the top records even more. We can give them even more choice in the road towards the finals. Let’s fabricate some DRAMA!

I borrowed a lot of these ideas from the GSL StarCraft 2 league in South Korea, the most well respected tournament in the game. Esports tournaments are not limited to location, physical fatigue, or the extreme scheduling hurdles that physical sports have. The result is a lot of varied, modern formats. I understand there are a mountain of logistics that are make video games different from basketball teams, and I will be ignoring a lot of them for the sake of simplicity.

These are no fun to consider when planning a new format.

  • Arena scheduling
  • Travel and rest days
  • Scheduling all together from TV networks

My broad idea is maintaining fairness within the competitions, shaking up a rigid format, and rewarding the best records in the league with more choice in their playoff brackets.

A Brief Overview of GSL

The Rules:

  • The four top-ranked players from 2017 are seeded into separate groups (A-D-C-B order)
  • First four picks are made in order of seeding (#1 seed gets 1st pick, #2 seed gets 2nd pick, etc.)
  • Remaining picks in “snake draft” order starting from Group D
  • After all picks are made, #1 seed can swap any two non-seeded players

Seeded players are the top 4 from the previous season. They are split off into four separate groups and choose the first person to put into their respective groups. The chosen players then choose the third player, and the third player chooses the last one in each group. At the very end, the champion from the previous season gets to swap two players. You can find an example here.

Two players advance from each group and are seeded into a round of 8 playoffs stage where you cannot play a player from your own group.

The best part? The group selection is televised! With lots of smack talk!

Well, that format would take forever and stupidly crazy for the NBA. It’d never work.

You are right. It is. I tried it. There’s no way to do it unless the playoffs took 6+ months, but we can still steal some ideas for my own interests. I’m tired of seeing Golden State play LeBron. I don’t want to sit through more Clippers-Grizzlies series. I don’t want to have this fake fabricated Philadelphia-Boston drama. I want teams across both East and West conferences to meet one another before the finals. I want a new format! So here’s my idea.

Here’s the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2018 in order by record.

  1. Houston
  2. Toronto
  3. Golden State
  4. Boston
  5. Philadelphia
  6. Cleveland
  7. Portland
  8. Oklahoma City
  9. Utah
  10. Indiana
  11. New Orldeans
  12. San Antonio
  13. Minnesota
  14. Miami
  15. Milwaukee
  16. Washington

Now, we split the top two teams onto opposite ends of the bracket. Then, Houston gets the first pick of whether it wants Golden State or Boston on its side of the bracket.nba-playoffs-bracket-initial-picks

This is just the start. Next, we have to fill out where the teams 5-8 are slotted. Toronto picks first, then GS, and finally Boston. The teams picked get put into their respective brackets. Then we start from 1-8 and start picking first round opponents.

Here’s what I picked out:


The sequence that led to this bracket:

  1. Houston and Toronto are put on opposite ends of the bracket.
  2. Houston chooses Boston in its bracket. Nobody wants Golden State on their side.
  3. Toronto chose OKC.
  4. GS chose Philadelphia.
  5. Boston chooses Portland
  6. Houston got stuck with the Lebrons.
  7. Then teams 1-8 by record choose their respective opponents.

So what about teams 9-16? Are they just at the mercy of the higher seeded teams? Yes. Yes, you are. Should have fought harder to get into the top 8 then!

Keep in mind this is just one scenario that I tried.

Why? Just why?

Stop tanking for playoff positioning. Just play your best.

You know what is probably done but nobody talks about? Tanking for position. Teams were jockeying to play Boston in the first round this year after it lost Kyrie Irving. Teams thought this Boston team would be a joke. This format completely eliminates lower seeds’ ability to determine playoff bracket positioning and rewards higher seeds for having a great regular season record.

Side note: Boston is amazing this year, and I’m very sad Ben Simmons has to suffer for their greatness.

Better records are rewarded with more power in decided their fates.

This format also give the top 4 seeds much more meaning and choice in determining their respective roads to the finals. Home court is great. Playoff basketball is about matchups. Choosing your bracket is much better, and possibly more fun. The regular season is an incredible grind that should be rewarded.

I think this format gives a better chance for the two best teams to actually meet in the Finals.

Isn’t that what we all want? We want the Finals to be the spectacular contest with the two best teams. The fans and the media more or less know who the best few teams are. So the top seeded team should exert its power and throw the biggest threat on the opposite end of the bracket. We want each round of the playoffs to be more competitive than the previous ones. It should not matter if 6 of the top 8 teams come from the West. We just want the best to advance. We avoid situations such as in 2007 where the winner of the Finals was clearly going to come from the West. As spectacular as it is for a young Lebron to lead his team to the finals, the Suns were a much more formidable opponent for the Spurs.

DRAMA! DRAMA! DRAMA! And variety.

Fabricated drama, this generation’s greatest talent. Quotes are taken out of context. Tone is gone missing in tweets. Players are afraid to say the wrong thing all the time now. Let’s televise the selection process! All the coaching teams can Skype call Adam Silver, and he can come out one by one and present the playoff picks like the draft. Have the disrespect flow into the lower seeded teams. The Wizards’ backcourt would have a field day with the media saying everyone disrespects them. How great would it be if a lower seeded team won too? The smack talk among fan bases will be AMAZING.

Plus, aren’t we tired of seeing a Golden State vs Cleveland finals? How about we add some variety to the format to avoid a constantly repeating finals? They still have opportunities to meet before the finals if the brackets shake up right, so the storyline is still possible.

THIS IS MADNESS! What are the problems with your format?

The top seed has too much power.

Maybe, but I think it’s fair. Picking favorable matchups for yourself is a fantastic reward for trudging through the marathon that is the regular season. This rewards durability and may even have the best players play more and rest less. It could also bring some regular season gamesmanship that so far, I’ve only seen Pop deploy. When playing important teams during the Spurs contender years, he always threw out ridiculous lineups to hide his cards.

Regional rivalries may be gone. Some fans care about the nostalgia.

There was a lot of talk this year about the Philadelphia-Boston rivalries of the 80s. Personally, I think this is stupid. A lot of the fans and all of the players except Thon Maker weren’t even alive or old enough to care during that time. They don’t care. It’s a new team. It’s a different world. Those teams may also end up facing each other anyways, so it doesn’t completely eliminate the team rivalries. I am open to hearing other fan perspectives about this idea. Feel free to message or comment me to elaborate. I will read it.

The first round may produce some real snoozers.

The top 4 seeds at least will choose the weakest opponents and probably stomp them to the ground. We may have a record number of sweeps and 4-1 series. This is good game theory, but it’s bad for the fan watching experience. A return of the best of 5 rather than a best of 7 formats in the first round may work better for this format. It’s also really boring for the media to try and fabricate some kind of narrative.

Records are one side are bloated.

There’s a lot of noise in records. That’s the difficulty in changing the regular season structure and its playoff implications. The west’s records may not end up higher because of the west is currently much more competitive than the east is. 82 games does not mean every team plays each other the same amount of times. There will always be some disparity in the records because of the season schedules.

Did I miss anything?

Tell me about it!

About the Author: Benjamin Xiao

I am a data practitioner who loves making simple, powerful visualizations and working with machine learning algorithms to learn more about the world. Basketball is incredibly dynamic, and it only takes one player to change an entire game plan. Data has stories hidden within it, and I want to reveal why my favorite team is better than yours is. And why Ben Simmons is amazing.

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