Remaking the NBA Playoffs

National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver has floated the idea of changing the way that teams qualify and are seeded in the NBA playoffs. Instead of qualifying eight of the fifteen teams in each conference, and seeding those eight into separate knock-out bracket, with the winners of those two brackets playing in the finals for the championship, perhaps the league should qualify the 16 teams with the best record, regardless of conference, into a single 16 bracket.

The reason that alternatives are sought is that the two conferences of the NBA are widely regarded as being badly our of balance. According to the gnomes at fivethirtyeight.com, eight of the nine best teams in the league, including the top three, are in the Western conference.

One of the possible objections, anticipated by Mr. Silver himself, is that the regular season schedule is not balanced between the two conferences. In the 82-game season, each team plays each other team in the league at least twice, but each team plays ten of the teams in its own conference four times, and the other four in-conference teams thrice. Is this a problem?

The short answer, I’d suggest, is no.

It’s true that the Western Conference teams will play a somewhat tougher regular season schedule, and so can be expected to have somewhat fewer wins than teams of equal skill in the Eastern Conference. So, to some extent, the Eastern Conference teams will be at a small advantage for playoff qualification and seeding.

But compare that with the current practice, in which the Eastern Conference teams have a huge advantage. They now have eight playoff spots guaranteed, and those eight teams go into a bracket that’s full of other Eastern Conference teams, and thus considerably weaker than the bracket that the Western Conference teams have to play. The imbalance in the schedule may make the new playoff regime slightly less fair, but it’s going to be a whole lot fairer than the present one. It doesn’t make sense to eschew a reform because it falls short of perfection. As the aphorism has it, perfect is the enemy of good.

That Mr. Silver should worry about the fairness of the playoffs is good, but also perhaps a little odd. The other major sports leagues have regular seasons that are not in balance. In the case of the National Football League, the imbalance is severe and intentional – teams that do well in one season are intentionally given tougher schedules in the next.

I suspect that Mr. Silver’s concern is not purely a matter of upholding the first of the Three Maxims of Tournament Design. Perhaps it’s crossed his mind that, while the better teams, on average, are in the West, the teams in the East are, on average, in larger media markets. Balancing the schedule so that the eastern fans get to see the good teams in the Western Conference more often might work to the league’s advantage.

 

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