The NBA’s Sweet Sixteen: Restructuring the NBA Playoffs

The NBA Playoffs tip-off today with four games, including top overall team Golden State taking on the New Orleans Pelicans.  All the matchups seem pretty solid.

Well……except in the East.  On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics face off against the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers respectively.  No one expects these to be much of a contest…not even Nets coach Lionel Hollins.  If these go six then most will be shocked and dismiss the Hawks as flukes and the Cavs as choking.  Go ahead and write the East’s one and two seeds into the next round…do it in marker!

Of course, matchups like that lead to some wondering why the hell a team like the Nets, who finished the season 38-44 [0.463], is even in the playoffs.  These question especially arise when you look out West and see a 45-37 Oklahoma City team sitting at home.  Can’t something be done about that?

Most point out that the structure of the NBA, with two conferences further divided into three divisions each, creates this situation.  And, really, there is no better way to divide the teams.  I mean, are we really going to move to a baseball or football format where there are two conferences that span the country?  Imagine the Clippers and Lakers both being in Los Angeles but being in opposite conferences!

Well, short of doing that, there is something that can be done now — simply take the sixteen best teams regardless of division.  That’s what we want, yeah?  But, what would something like that look like?  Is it even feasible?


Well, before answering those two questions, there exist a better question — is it even necessary?  Think about this: every year when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection is announced one of the first topics of discussions is who got snubbed?  Which “deserving” team was left out and which team should NOT be in the tourney.  But, in all honesty, do those complaining about Team 69 really believe that they will go all the way?  Maybe they make it past opening weekend, but it is likely that a snubbed team was snubbed for a reason.  So, the discussion about snubbed teams and undeserving teams is more about just…talking.  It brings hype and interest to the tournament because pretty soon no one remembers the snubs.

Seriously!  Can you recall which teams were snubbed last year?  Hell, can you remember which teams were snubbed this season?  Exactly.

What does this have to do with the NBA?  Simple.  Are a couple of bad teams from one conference getting into the NBA Playoffs really coming at the expense of a team that was a championship contender?  Essentially, aren’t we just trading one mediocre team for another?

Still, the “is it even necessary” needs to be asked and to answer it we need to see how often it actually occurs.  Looking at the past decade, there have been only nine teams that could have been replaced by teams with better records from the other conference.  In two seasons — the 2006-07 season and the 2011-12 season — there were no teams that were “snubbed.”  In 2007-08, there were two teams that were snubbed; all other seasons had only one team snubbed.

So, we established that it happens nearly every season, though it is typically only one team.  Also, it should be noted that in every case over the last ten seasons that it was an Eastern Conference team that got in at the expense of a Western Conference team.  However, it is not simply replacing the worst playoff team with another team that would equally be “8th”…or “16th” as it would be.  In most cases, the snubbed team would be “seeded” higher than the undeserving team.

For example, as the playoff team with the worst record, the Nets could be considered 16th.  However, if Oklahoma City were to replace them, the Thunder would actually be 14th.  Last season, replacing the Atlanta Hawks with the Phoenix Suns would have seen the later go in as the 13th team.

Here would be the year by year exchange:

  • 2014-15: Oklahoma City (14) instead of Brooklyn
  • 2013-14: Phoenix (13) instead of Atlanta
  • 2012-13: Utah (15) instead of Milwaukee
  • 2011-12: none
  • 2010-11: Houston (14) instead of Indiana
  • 2009-10: Houston (16) instead of Chicago
  • 2008-09: Phoenix (13) instead of Detroit
  • 2007-08: Portland (16) instead of Atlanta; AND Golden State (12) instead of Philadelphia
  • 2006-07: none
  • 2005-06: Utah (16) instead of Milwaukee

So, given that there is usually one snub each year, it does seem like going to the best 16 makes sense.  One other consideration is the disparity between the eighth seed in one conference versus the other.  For example, Golden State, the NBA’s best team by record, will face a Pelicans team that has the 13th-best record.  On the other hand, Atlanta, as the Eastern Conference’s top team, faces the Nets, which sport the 17th-best record in the NBA.  Taking the 16 best teams regardless of conferences could potentially avoid this disparity.

(Re)Creating the NBA Playoffs

So…what would this look like?  Well, before i delve into that, keep in mind the following: what lies below assumes that while the Conference structure remains intact, the divisions are abolished.  It is possible to take into account the divisions and award them the top six seeds regardless of record.  However, i wanted to simplify this and only look at the conferences.  Conference champs should be rewarded; division champs should not [remember Denver would have been a seven or eight seed in 2005-06 had it not won the Northwest Division].

Anyway, I think that there are actually a couple of options.  First, let’s do the simplest yet least geographic method before examining how we could overcome crazy “red-eye” series; rank them 1 to 16 and match ’em up!

What would the 2015 NBA Playoffs look like if we ranked the 16 best teams and just slotted them accordingly?  Well…here is the list:

  1. Golden State [0.817]
  2. Atlanta [0.732]
  3. Houston [0.683]
  4. Los Angeles Clippers [0.683]
  5. Memphis [0.671]
  6. San Antonio [0.671]
  7. Cleveland [0.646]
  8. Portland [0.622]
  9. Chicago [0.610]
  10. Dallas [0.610]
  11. Toronto [0.598]
  12. Washington [0.561]
  13. New Orleans [0.549]
  14. Oklahoma City [0.549]
  15. Milwaukee [0.500]
  16. Boston [0.488]

A couple of notes before we look at the matchups.  First, the tiebreakers for the conferences were used to separate teams such as Memphis/San Antonio and New Orleans/Oklahoma City.  In the case of Chicago and Dallas, i gave the edge to the Bulls due to point differential in head-to-head games [they tied the season series at 1-1; Bulls won their game by four points while the Mavs won by three].  Also, notice that Cleveland, a favorite for many to come out of the East, is seventh!!

Now, here is what the brackets would actually look like:

2015 NBA Sweet Sixteen?

2015 NBA Sweet Sixteen?

It would be interesting to see this play out.  Imagine instead of an Eastern Conference finals between the Hawks and Cavs that it actually comes in the quarterfinals!  But what about Golden State?  Yes, they now play the worst playoff team [by record] but that travel…over 2600 miles one way.  Imagine that it went seven games.  And then, imagine that the Bulls upset Portland…1800-plus miles.  And then we have a 12-5 upset and the Wizards somehow make it to the Semifinals…2400 miles or so.  AND THEN…the Hawks are waiting in the Finals.  Well, hope you are using frequent flyer miles because that’s another 2100 miles!

Well, keep in mind that Golden State already has the potential of traveling over 1600 miles to each of its three (potential) Western Conference opponents; New Orleans will be the furthest at over 1900 miles.

But, what would other years look like?  Let’s take a look:

2014 NBA bracket

2013 NBA Bracket

2013 NBA Bracket

2012 NBA Bracket

2012 NBA Bracket

2011 NBA Bracket

2011 NBA Bracket

Before moving on, a quick note, while the 16 best teams are in the playoffs, the top two seeds went to the Conference champions.  There needed to be a reward for winning the conferences.  I debated giving the top two teams from each conference the top four slots, but opted against it.  In the brackets above, the only season where a Conference champion leapfrogged teams with better records was 2014 where the Indiana Pacers actually had the fourth-best record in the NBA.  If i would have carried this out for the entire study period, it would also happen in 2007, 2008, and 2010.

Overall, the challenge is not prominent every year and more subject to certain scenarios playing out.  For example, in the top-half of the 2013 bracket, there is no avoiding an East-West semifinals, one where it could be Brooklyn versus a team in Los Angeles [side note: what a fun first round matchup in LA!].  Nevertheless, it seems like the Golden State issue is more of an anomaly than anything else.  Furthermore, with modern transportation and the way the NBA spaces out games in the early rounds, there should be enough “travel” days to allow players to rest and adjust.

But, there is also that issue of the 2-2-1-1-1 format, where the higher seed has the first two home games then the lower seed with the next two home games, followed by alternating home court over the last three games [if necessary].  Even a six-game series is going to be quite a bit of travel.  An argument could be made that with this sort of tournament that the 2-3-2 format might be best.  But, the criticism is that IF the series was tied at two games of a 2-3-2 format then the lower seed has the home advantage in game five.  In fact, in 2013 NBA owners voted unanimously to change the NBA Finals format away from 2-3-2 and to the 2-2-1-1-1 format that was used in all other rounds.  So, they may not be interested in going that route.

Solutions?  There are three.  First, they could go to a 3-2-2 format where the higher seed plays the first THREE games at home.  Yes, the lower seed still gets that pivotal game five at home, but if you cannot defend your home court through the first three games then you deserve to be 2-2 in the series.  The question, of course, is about the fairness of possibly giving the lower seed only one home game in a series [even if they sweep].  Well, it could be used only for the first round before going to the 2-2-1-1-1.  OR, you could just deal with it!  Remember, before there was the five-game series in which the format was 2-2-1 and meant it was possible for the lower seed to only have one game.

Speaking of that, we could return to a five-game series.  But…….while it is a solution it is doubtful that owners would go for it.

So, other than altering the format, what else could be done to ease travel concerns?  Well, there could be a “selection” of teams.  In this case, it is not about “merit” so to speak.  I mean, Duke getting a number one seed is about merit and accomplishments rather than geography.  Imagine the Spurs getting a higher seed simply because of their recent history!  And then, imagine the outrage.

The “selection” would be based on geographic matchups.  But, this does not mean that Golden State should start off with the Clippers or Portland.  The best idea would be to “pod” teams so that there are similarities among a group of teams and then matchups could be determined from there.

For example, with 16 teams there can easily be four groupings of four teams.  If done based solely on winning percentage, the 2015 groupings could look like this:

2015 tiers

The Conference champs are automatically placed into Tier One [in the study period, no conference champ fell into Tier Two anyway].  Tier One teams face Tier Four teams based on geography while Tier Two teams are matched between Tier Three teams.  Tier One and Tier Two teams are seeded one through eight based on winning percentage, though the Conference champs still get seeds one and two.  The Tier Three and Four teams would be seeded based on their matchup.

From there, the NBA in conjunction with the playoff owners, can determine the matchups.  It could be a situation where the top two seeds take the two lowest teams based on proximity.  So, Golden State might start with Milwaukee instead of Boston since the former is closer to Oakland than the latter.  Or, it could be the lowest team in Tier Four from the Western Conference — Oklahoma City.  However, there are scenarios where there may NOT be a team from the same conference in the opposing tier [for Tier Four, that was never the case in the study period].  There is a possibility around that — ensure that at least one team from each conference is in Tier Four.

Regardless of how it is done, it would go in order of record.  So Golden State would be matched up first, followed by Atlanta and then Houston; the Clippers would get the leftover team in Tier Four.  Then, Tiers two and three would be matched up.  It could be done similarly to Tiers One and Four, or it could just do it by record and not worry about distance.  But, this “selection” may want to take into account quarterfinal matchups.  So, some manipulation of the middle matchups could happen.

Here is an example of what a bracket under these conditions might look like.

The 2015 bracket using Tiers

The 2015 bracket using Tiers

In this case, the Warriors were matched up with the Thunder while the Hawks get Boston.  Houston draws Milwaukee and the Clippers still wind up facing the Pelicans — I guess Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis are destined to meet!  The Tier Two-Tier Three games saw Memphis still facing Washington.  But, San Antonio now faces Dallas in what some may argue is tougher matchup than should be.  Cleveland gets the Bulls while Portland is on the short end by having the long distance series with Toronto.

Here is a comparison between seeding based on records and seeding based on tiers:

comparison of 2015


In the end, the NBA Playoffs are an exciting time regardless of the debate over the deserving-ness of a team over another.  No one is going to complain about any of this come June and the NBA Finals [though, people may complain about the participants themselves].

Still, for those that want a change to the selection of teams for the playoffs, there is hope.  While the NBA and its owners might not ever move to a system like the one outlined above, what this article shows is that it is possible to create a format that takes the 16 best teams into the postseason.  It would take some major changes, including canning the divisions, but it is possible.

And that’s all we want…possibilities!


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