Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Thursday Debate: Should the NBA Playoff Format be Changed?

We have a little thing on this blog I like to call Thursday Debate... I ask a question, give my opinion, and then see how everyone else feels about it. Today we have the most popular sports topic right now... should the NBA playoff format be changed?

As we suffer through the Cleveland/San Antonio series, which is taking place a couple of weeks after the peak of the postseason (the Phoenix/San Antonio series), I think it's very appropriate to ask the question: should the NBA playoff format be changed?

The common thought (and the thought of David Stern) (and to quote Bryan L.) is that changing things would be a long-term solution to a short-term problem. But is it really just a short-term problem?

The NBA has been dominated by the West for the past 10 years... the only 2 titles won by teams in the East since the 1998 Bulls were the Pistons in 2004 (over the self-destructing Lakers), and Dwyane Wade beating the Mavs last year. Other than that things have been dominated by the West.

And really, it seems to me that the balance of power won't be shifting for a while The East has LeBron and Wade, two of the brightest young stars in the NBA. They also have no power teams, an abnormal amount of bad GMs, and bad luck in the draft. The West has teams that look like they can reasonably compete for a title for the next few years (Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio), and the two best players coming into the league will be headed out West.

Or another way to put, from Bill Simmons (love him or hate him), who said the point more succinctly than I just did:

1. Once the league's reckless (repeat: reckless) expansion pushed the number of teams past the mid-20s, it became too easy for one conference to be stacked with elite teams. David Stern has argued multiple times that this stuff evens out over time, but clearly, that's not true. We've had much better teams in the West for nearly a full decade; in eight of the past 10 seasons, the best two teams played before the Finals, and in four of those seasons, they played before the conference finals. Um ... that's not a major flaw in the system?

We saw this imbalance from 1980 to 1989, when there were always 3-4 great teams in the East (the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks dominated the first half, then the Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Hawks and Cavs took turns in the second half) and the Lakers whupped up a different underdog in the Western finals almost every year. But here was the big difference: Because the league hadn't killed itself with expansion and there were so many salary cap loopholes, the Lakers were always really good. They went nine-deep with two franchise players (Magic and Kareem), an All-Star (Worthy), great role players and a rotating cast of accomplished veterans passing through for a ring. Because such a great/memorable/entertaining team was carrying the West in the '80s, nobody cared that the conferences were unbalanced. Now? We care. We don't have Magic's Lakers to salvage things.

2. Once upon a time, the NBA created conferences to cut down on everyone's travel -- not just to save expenses but to save the bodies of its players (all of whom were flying coach). Even now, it's a reasonable strategy for the regular season. But for the playoffs? Not nearly as reasonable. Everyone's flying around in charter jets, for God's sake! If we adopted the 2-3-2 format for every playoff series -- which should happen, anyway -- travel time and days would be cut back. So you can't play the "too much traveling" card. Not in 2007.

3. There's a rigid predictability to the playoffs every spring that we don't necessarily need. For instance, one of the reasons the Mavs-Warriors series was so much fun was because it came out of nowhere. Shouldn't we be searching for that "what a goofy matchup!" variable every spring? Why do we want to subject ourselves to a solid decade of Cavs-Bulls or Cavs-Heat series in the East? Isn't the unpredictability and randomness part of what makes March Madness so great?

On the other hand, some people like tradition. I myself was in that boat for a long time, but after a string of the NBA Finals not coming close to matching the excitement from earlier rounds, I think it's time for a change. Tradition is nice, having the two best teams meet in the NBA Finals is even better.

What are your thoughts? If you were in charge, would you change the playoff format? And I'd love to hear in the comments what'd you would change it too?

Should the NBA Change its Playoff Format?