By: Jeffrey Newholm
This year the NBA figures to have a problem in June. There are two teams that are dominating the league: San Antonio and Golden State. I think we can all agree they’re the best two teams. In fact Cleveland seems to have admitted this themselves, firing their coach despite being first in the east. The problem, of course, is that both teams are in the western conference, so the league could be faced with the prospect of an exciting west finals and anticlimactic NBA finals. Conveniently, the NBA has the WNBA to use as a Guinea Pig to tinker with postseason formats and not face massive backlash. Being NBS’ women’s basketball guy, I’d like to give my two cents on what I think of the massive overhaul announced last week of the WNBA playoff structure. First I’ll give my opinion of what I thought of the old format, then I’ll explain what we have now, and finally I’ll opine on the new format.Previously, the top four (out of six) teams in each conference made the playoffs. The first two rounds were best two out of three and the finals were best three out of five. One thing I quickly noticed last year (in my first year watching the WNBA playoffs) was that each game was impactful and exciting. No matter how good a team is, one loss and that team is at death’s door. In the NBA, a significant underdog has very little chance of pulling an upset seeing as they need to win four out of seven times. In the history of the NBA playoffs, the eight and seven seeds have combined for just ten first round series wins. In last year’s WNBA playoffs, both one vs. four match-ups came down to the final minute of the third game. There was only one out of the eight playoff teams that didn’t have a real chance to win, and that was due to a devastating injury. The finals matched the West’s one with the East’s three, and it came down to the final fifth game. In the NBA the last time a three seed went to the finals was 2011 (and, for that matter, the only time the two in the east made it was was when Lebron’s team happened to be the two). Best of all the playoffs were over in a reasonable amount of time whereas the NBA playoffs drag on for two months. So I think there was a lot to like about how the WNBA playoffs used to be. Of course that’s all water under the bridge now, so now I’ll explain the new format.
WNBA conferences now matter only for regular season scheduling: the top eight teams make it regardless of conference. The top two teams get a bye all the way to the semifinals (now best of five), the third and fourth best teams get a bye to the quarterfinals and the last four play in the first round. Furthermore, the first two rounds are single elimination while the semis are best three out of five. Also, teams will be reseeded every round like in the NFL so the best team plays the lowest seed and so forth. I’m sure there will be quite a bit of tinkering before we see big changes in the NBA, but what do I think of the current format? I like doing away with conference affiliation because it makes power imbalances irrelevant. In last year’s NBA east three teams in the east made it in with non-winning records, while the Thunder got left out in the West despite being eight games over .500. However, I worry that giving the best two teams double-byes gives them too big an advantage. The NCAA MAC conference tried something similar for a while, but it made the tournament too predictable. The top two teams in the MAC advanced all the way to the semis while some teams had to win as many as three games to get there. In the four years this format was used, the number one seed advanced to the finals all four years and won the tournament three of those times. Now in the WNBA the weaker teams will have to win one or two sudden death games just to get the semis, and then have to win three times to get to the finals. With all WNBA postseason games on ESPN, more games will mean more exposure for the league. But at some point a league does get overexposed, as the NFL is in danger of being with football seemingly every day of the week. Unfortunately I don’t think there will be a lot of interest in the early round WNBA games. In 2016 the conference rivals Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury figure to be the two best teams in the league, and now they can meet with the everything on the line. But I worry it’ll be too much of a forgone conclusion.
To summarize, I think some sort of change was definitely needed for pro basketball’s postseason. But I don’t think the current WNBA playoff format is the final answer. If I were commish I think a good solution would be to allow fewer teams in the playoffs (do we really need two thirds of the league making it?) but sadly sports playoffs never shrink, they only inevitably grow. It’s a step in the right direction, but don’t expect the same design to migrate to the men’s league.
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