5 Ways to Fix the Broken NBA Playoffs

The NBA playoffs are nearly upon us, and with them come a couple of games guaranteed to involve a team that posted a losing record (the two West play-in game teams, plus the Clippers if they lose their last two; they’re 40-40 at this writing.) The play-in games are pointless, and if the 34-46 Spurs lose their last two regular-season games and somehow turn it around in the play-in tournament, that 34-48 record will be the worst record by a playoff team since the 1988 Spurs got in after going 31-51.

On the other hand, the East is showing why a play-in tournament might not be as awful an idea as it seems on paper; the East’s 10 seed will be no worse than 42-40 if either Atlanta, Charlotte, or both lose their last regular-season contest. For the first time in ages, the East looks the deeper conference than the West.

But that doesn’t justify the play-in tournament. You’ve all heard my rant about how dumb it is, and it’s not like a 42-40 team is going to win the title; whichever teams emerge from that sludge pile in the East to contend in the “real” playoffs are going to get smoked by Miami and Milwaukee.

And speaking of sludge piles, the East’s best entrant, the Miami Heat, can’t do better than 54-28, while two West teams have already secured records better than that, namely the seemingly unstoppable Phoenix Suns (64-17) and the Memphis Grizzlies (55-25.)

But anyway, you’ve read the title of this article. You want to know what I’m on about. So here are the 5 fixes the NBA needs to make to improve the postseason.

Eliminate the Play-in Games and Seed Everyone 1-16.

Don’t talk to me about travel. This isn’t 1950, when it took a plane all day and half the night to fly across the country. There are more than enough rest and travel days since the NBA got rid of back-to-backs in the playoffs ages ago. They’re only playing three games a week. Besides, it’s not like the current NBA alignment makes any sense anyway. Portland didn’t make the playoffs (or come close) this year, but if they were the 7 seed, Memphis would be closer to Miami or Atlanta (two Eastern conference cities) than it is to Portland…or San Francisco or Los Angeles or Sacramento or even closer-at-hand cities like Denver.

Sure, you’d end up getting the Celtics playing the Lakers one of these days, and those sorts of matchups really do belong in the Finals, but then again, if they meet in the earlier rounds, that might just spark the rivalry up a bit. Would’ve been nice in 2020, right?

Besides, this brings me to my next suggestion.

No Team With A Losing Record In Any Sport Should Make the Postseason.

This is true in the NFL (looking at you, 2010 Seahawks, 2014 Panthers, and 2020 Football Team, while ignoring 1982 because 1982 was weird and they only had nine games due to the strike), it’s true in Major League Baseball (hasn’t happened yet with expanded playoffs but the ’05 Padres won an awful NL West at 82-80 and the AL West, before the ’94 strike, had 52-62 Texas in first place), it’s especially true in hockey (remember the 21-team league with the 16-team playoff format from the old days? The Hartford Whalers remember!), and it should be true in the NBA.

The NBA is not getting rid of conferences for playoff purposes. It’s a pipe dream. So let’s instead focus on a more realistic outcome.

If you can’t find 10 teams to post 41-41 or better, you give the 7 seed the playoff berth automatically and reserve the play-in game for the 8-9 matchup. If the 9 seed is no good, you just go top eight. And if you can’t find 8 teams at or above .500 in a conference, you give the 1 seed (and the 2 seed if you can’t find 7, and so on) a first-round bye. They might be a little rusty in Game 1 of the semis but they’ll be a whole lot healthier.

And this is true in every sport. No team that loses more often than it wins deserves a chance to compete for a championship. Period.

Bring Back Best-of-Five First-Round Series.

For one thing, best-of-seven is too long and drags out the first round. For another, mathematically speaking, the chances of an upset plummet the longer you make a playoff series. It’s less likely we’ll see a playoff upset if that underdog has to win four games rather than three.

I’m not suggesting we go any shorter than that. Single-elimination would be dumb. Sure, it’s great in the college game, where some 15 seed ends up making a Cinderella run because they get hot at the right time, but let’s be honest with ourselves. If college ball were best-of-five, Kentucky would’ve beaten St. Peter’s in four games. Even if it were best two out of three, the Wildcats get it together and win that first round.

But the ’94 Nuggets were—no matter how much I loved those Payton-Kemp Sonics back in the day—good for basketball. We need more of that.

Three Words: Sudden Death Overtime.

Well, sort of. I wrote a whole article about it. Basically, first team to go up four wins. All fouls are shooting fouls. No timeouts allowed. Substitutions only happen when there’s a natural stoppage in play. And if the teams are tied or within one point at 55 minutes (a seven-minute maximum overtime total), next score wins.

It’s basically my improved version of the Elam Ending.

And Finally: One Fewer Media Timeout Per Quarter.

Because I want to watch basketball, not commercials. I get that the networks have to make their money; I just don’t care as a fan. There are plenty enough opportunities to throw advertising onto everything—gods know ESPN especially has tried just about all of them.