Why NBA Playoff Reform is Necessary (and how to do it)

By Rudyard K
Nov. 26, 2019

The 2019-20 NBA season is supposed to be one of the most exciting in NBA history. No one knows for certain who will end up in the Finals and win the championship. The Los Angeles Lakers have done well and are perhaps the title favorites as of this point, but fans could easily point to other teams like the Bucks, Celtics, Rockets, or Clippers as teams that could win among others. The end of the Golden State dynasty should have made the league more appealing to fans.

And yet that is not the case. According to, nationally televised NBA games which do not involve the two Los Angeles teams have been a rating disappointment. “Including ESPN, nine games have failed to crack the million viewer mark thus far, compared to 19 all of last season.” TNT meanwhile has had six straight games with fewer than a million viewers.

There are plenty of reasons that the NBA could use to explain this viewership decline, such as early disappointments (the New Orleans Pelicans and Golden State Warriors have already been on ESPN or TNT a combined nine times) or the ongoing China controversy. But the simplest and most important reason is that fans and players increasingly do not care about the regular season. All that matters are the playoffs and who gets the rings. Anything else today is viewed as utterly irrelevant and unimportant.

Some have talked about shortening the regular season and said in March that he has considered it. But in order to spur interest in the regular season, the playoffs also need to be reformed as well.

There are two significant ways in which the current NBA playoff format hurts the regular season. First, there is no real advantage in finishing with the top seed as the homecourt advantage is not that important. Time and time again, we have seen top teams at the end of the season like Golden State or the LeBron Heat openly pass on finishing with the higher seed in order to rest for the playoffs.

Second, the NBA playoffs are too long. The entire NFL and MLB playoffs each take little over a month, while the NBA first-round takes nearly that long. The 82-game season feels just that much more irrelevant, as fans know that there is a long playoff battle afterward to figure out the real best team.

What is to be done?

Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey has commentated that the NBA should adopt a playoff format similar to the NFL or NCAA, with single-elimination playoff games that would drive interest to the max level. While I believe that would be too radical of a change, the NBA should borrow one idea from the NFL in particular: only the top six teams make the playoffs instead of the top eight.

Fans for years have long criticized the NBA for an overly generous playoff format where over half of the league gets into the first round, according to Bro88, even though no one expects the seventh or eighth seed to accomplish anything. No seventh or eighth seed has ever won a championship, and so allowing them in is to a major extent a waste of time. Like the NFL, the first and second seed will have a bye in the first round, while the third seed plays against the sixth and the fourth against the fifth. And while single-elimination games might be too crazy, the first round could be the best of three series. Three games could be played in a week, which is the length of the byes top NFL teams receive.

Top teams would compete harder for a top spot in the regular season with the prospective reward of a bye which will let them recover from the regular season grind, and a shorter series will create more variance and lead to a more exciting playoff race. The next round could perhaps be a best of five series, followed by the best of seven for the conference finals and NBA finals.

Certainly, this specific proposal will likely never be implemented. But as the NBA considers ways to improve fan interest in the regular season, they should take a good look at changing the playoff format. As long as the NBA playoffs remain a long slog filled with irrelevant teams, it will be hard for fans to care about the regular season even in a year as open as this one.

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