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Thomas: The meanderings of a bored sports fan: How the NBA could re-structure their playoffs

| Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Well, the sports drought continues. The return of all our beloved professional sports leagues is ambiguous, and what’s even more uncertain is how each league will approach their shortened seasons. It’s an interesting and rare chance for each league to get creative in how they do this. Today, I’ll offer a little proposal on what the NBA could consider. They may not be the best ideas, but they’re most certainly different and engaging. For the purpose of this piece, I’m setting up a potential return date for the league on June 15, which seems somewhat feasible, even if it’s without fans. Here’s what I’ve got:

If the NBA resumes play on June 15, here’s an idea. We start the postseason virtually right away. Give them a week before games start to practice as a team again, and then a week of exhibition games (June 15-21) that teams use to prepare and get their legs under them for the postseason. With teams having played everywhere from 63-67 games, it’s virtually impossible to restart the regular season and get the playoffs started in a time frame that doesn’t disadvantage teams that had played fewer games. For example, if the NBA were to say everyone has to play 70 games, then the Lakers have to get in seven more games, but the Mavericks have to play three more. So instead, just call the regular season a wrap, and as explained below, we have a few games to finalize the seeding. 

On Tuesday, June 23, we start the playoffs. The first part is to determine seeding. Where each team is in the current standings hold unless there is a one game or fewer difference between them. Those teams use June 23 and June 24 for a single game at a neutral site to determine the seed. So in the Eastern Conference we would have:

Indiana Pacers vs. Philadelphia 76ers for the fifth and sixth seed

Brooklyn Nets vs. Orlando Magic for the seventh and eighth seeds

Charlotte Hornets vs. Chicago Bulls for the 10th and 11th seeds

A four-team tournament between the Knicks, Pistons, Hawks and Cavaliers to determine the order of seeds 12-15. 

And in the Western Conference:

A three-team round robin between the Jazz, Thunder and Rockets to determine fourth-sixth place. 

A four-team tournament between the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs to finalize seeds 9-12. 

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an efficient way to gets us to the playoffs faster, doesn’t exclude any potential bubble teams, and it finalizes the regular season standings with minimum room for complaints about injustices of unequal amounts of games played. That brings us to the playoff format. 

I won’t lie to you, this isn’t an original idea — this format is already employed by the ACC, but it is one of my favorite tournament formats. It is a 15-team tournament with byes for seeds 1-9 and double-byes for seeds 1-4. It gives everyone a chance, but it favors the best regular season teams, as it should — especially in such a strange situation. 

Starting Friday, June 26, seeds 10-15 would play a best-of-three series, with all three games hosted by the top seed. School will be out (regardless of the online situation), so set this up like March Madness: Games at 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. It’s an absolute feast for a sports-starved audience which was so cruelly deprived of their March Madness fix this year. 

This “play-in” style weekend will leave us with 12 teams in each conference. Now seeds 5-12 (assuming chalk holds) are in play in each conference. Again, the higher seeded teams host a best-of-three, starting Tuesday, June 30. Eastern Conference plays Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with the Western Conference playing on the other days. Four games per day, starting at 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. After this, we will be down to eight teams per conference by July 5. 

Starting July 7, the quarterfinals will feature a unique pairing system. Now due to the regular season standings being somewhat incomplete due to the shortened regular season, I propose the top four teams in each conference can pick their quarterfinal opponent. This will allow teams to avoid squads they match up badly with. For example, if the Celtics finish third and the 76ers finish sixth, Boston may elect to take on the fifth-seeded Pacers rather than face a Philly team that has been their kryptonite. The series will be a standard best of five, with Games 1, 2, and 5 at the higher-seeded team. Allowing for travel days, this should take us to July 14. 

After a scheduled day off between rounds, we’ll start the conference semifinals on July 16. At this point, it will just be the highest seed vs. lowest seed in each conference, with the other two teams squaring off against each other. From here on out, the playoffs progress normally with best-of-seven series until a champion is crowned. My by estimates, with travel days factored in, Game 7 of the NBA Finals would be played on August 15 — marking exactly two months since the season restarted. 

There are obviously some flaws, as there will be with any system that is created to deal with this extraordinary situation. Allowing the top four seeds so much rest could turn into a disadvantage given the rest they’ve already had during the shutdown. This could potentially be fixed by having the top four seeds in each conference play a round-robin followed by single elimination tournament to determine their seeding or at the very least the order in which they can pick their quarterfinal opponents. 

Personally, I think this would be a wildly entertaining and lucrative playoff format, but that is not just my decision to make. Ultimately, I’m just another bored guy in quarantine, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for sports to resume. I’ll probably have dreamt up 17 more playoff formats waiting for that day, but this one will work for now.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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