For a number of years - mostly, if not all in the post-Jordan era - there have been grumblings of changing the playoff format in order to provide the so-called best matchups involving the largest television markets in the country for the sake of Nielsen ratings. Yet, there is something else at play that critics will pay close attention to that will be taking place in the smallest of cities.
The NBA Developmental League will experiment with a new wrinkle in the playoff format; allowing division titlists to select their first round opponents.
The D-League, which has sixteen teams dispersed in three divisions, has a three-tiered playoff tree for eight teams. The first and second rounds are single-game elimination with their Finals being the best two-of-three series.
Of course, you must compare this to big brother; which has thirty teams split along (mostly) geographic lines into two conferences and three divisions apiece. The postseason is a sixteen-team party with four tiers (Conference Quarters, Conference Semis, Conference Finals and NBA Finals) in which each series is in a best-of-seven format.
If you recall that in recent years, the NBA made two changes in the playoff format; lengthening the first-round/Conference Quarterfinals to that best-of-seven (must win four games) format in 2003 and the 2006 seeding change that assured home-court advantage will be granted to the teams with the best records, regardless if a division winner has a lesser record than the best non-division winners.
Now, we've moved past the controversy of the first-round extension (thank you, 2007 for Golden State and 2008 with Atlanta's near upset), yet the later change proves how much of a struggle it has been to give credence to those division championships.
While there may not be much consternation about the division winners this year as those crowns are either already decided or close to it, we found ourselves in this scenario as recently as 2006 when both San Antonio and Cleveland boasted better records than Utah (Northwest), Toronto (Atlantic) and Miami (Southeast). What the '06 decision did was quell the anger that had existed during the Eastern Conference's downward spiral from the late nineties on. Yet, it was akin to taking care of the symptom as opposed to the illness.
In order for there to be little dispute about playoff seeding and divisional relevance, I'd argue that there needs to be a greater emphasis during the regular season.
As it stands now, each team plays its divisional opponents four times each (16 games), remaining conference teams either three or four times (36) and teams in the other conference twice apiece (30) to make the 82-game schedule. While it's hard to envision a scenario where a team can split their season series with every team in the league, the possibility that they can do so with at least their divisional rivals isn't too far fetched. As divisional record can be a tie-breaker between squads with identical records, shouldn't that portion of the standings serve as the start of eliminating some of this controversy?
From a glance at what the schedule is made of, I ask you to consider this;
- Each team will continue to play teams in the other conference twice in a season, one home and one away game (30 - 15 home and 15 away)
- Each team plays eight conference opponents three times each and two conference opponents four times each
- For the eight opponents: one home and one away with the third game alternating between teams, depending on home dates needed to be filled (24 - 12 home and 12 away)
- For the two remaining: two home and two away, with the two teams in this bracket alternating every season until all ten non-division teams in the conference have rotated through the schedule (8 - 4 home and 4 away)
- Each team plays divisional rivals five times each, with the fifth game alternating between each team every season, depending on amount of home dates needed to be filled (20)
These are just thoughts, but as I'm currently doing in jury deliberation, I'm open-minded to hear all suggestions and questions.