The return of sports throughout the summer has forced leagues to be creative in terms of how they will give each team a fair shot at making their respective league postseasons, given a limited amount of time.
The NBA was one of those leagues to make major changes to their playoff structure.
Last month, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in a down-to-the-wire matchup to clinch their playoff berth. The game marked the NBA’s first-ever "play-in" game.
While the game was introduced this year because of the shortened season, the change could be one that would be beneficial to the league to implement permanently.
The game was only held in the Western Conference because a team must finish within four games of the 8th seed to trigger the scenario. In a loaded West, there were five teams that finished within that margin, with three finishing within 1.5 games.
This level of parity isn’t an anomaly. Since the 2012-13 NBA season, at least one team has finished within 1 game or less of a playoff berth every year except 2019.
Many have complained that implementing a play-in scenario is unfair to the 8-seed, who competed to gain their playoff berth. The format, however, is designed to give the 8-seed an advantage over the 9-seed. The higher seed needs to win once, while the lower seed must win two consecutive games.
This format helps to ensure a more competitive playoff season by helping better teams reach the first round.
Teams can improve throughout the season for a variety of reasons, whether it be regaining players from injuries, like this year’s Trail Blazers, or giving young players time to build chemistry, like the Denver Nuggets who finished ninth in the West in both 2017 and 2018.
Additionally, teams like this year’s Grizzlies can be depleted by injuries, making them significantly worse than their record would suggest.
Seeing this change implemented won’t likely lead to regular-season champions getting upset in the first round frequently, but it will make the matchups much more exciting to watch than the sweeps that we typically see now.
The NBA has also played around with the idea of having 1-16 seeded playoffs as opposed to the current 1-8 by conference format. If the league chooses to go this route, the idea of Western Conference teams being able to displace Eastern Conference teams through a play-in game is appealing.
The Grizzlies, Suns, and Spurs all missed the playoffs this year, and all were objectively better than the Magic and Nets, who made the playoffs in the East.
With ratings down for this year’s NBA playoffs, pinning Zion Williamson against Giannis in the first round would bring in many more fans than the Bucks' current matchup against Evan Fournier and DJ Augustine.
This isn’t just about the East lacking superstar names, it’s about them providing a lower quality product. In the West, no series has gone less than five games. In the East, three of the four series have been sweeps, with the fourth series ending in five games. Something needs to change to bring the best teams to the playoffs.
Plus, the lack of parity between the East and the West is nothing new.
In 2008, the West’s 9-seed Golden State Warriors finished with a record three games better than the East’s 4-seed Cleveland Cavaliers. In 1986, Michael Jordan’s second season, the Bulls made the playoffs with only 30 wins. The worst team in the Western Conference had that same record.
The NBA needs to make changes to make sure their best teams and best players are represented in the playoffs. The fact that Aaron Gordon has made the playoffs multiple times, but Devin Booker has not played in even one playoff game is a tragedy.
Making adjustments to make for a better, more competitive playoff format is necessary for the continued growth of the league.
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