The Top 16: Does It Make Sense?

This year, the NBA has yet another spirited battle between very mediocre teams for low rung East playoff spots.  The question has arisen again whether it is worth considering awarding the 16 playoff spots by record, regardless of conference.  Adam Silver seemed to hint that a change could be coming when he told ESPN in December that “[u]ltimately, we want to see your best teams in the playoffs, and there is an imbalance and a certain unfairness [under the current system].”  Let’s think through the issue and assess whether seeding the playoffs differently is worth the time.

The first question is the obvious one: how problematic is the current system?  Currently, three sub-.500 teams will make the playoffs in the East, while (as of right now) the Pelicans (40-34) and Suns (38-38), both who have had better seasons, are out of the picture (the Jazz  at 34-41 are below them but would be a contender for the slot in the East).

This does seem somewhat unfair to a few teams out West, though it is quite unlikely that any of the West outsiders would make noise in the playoffs.  This system would also moderately punish the East top seeds, who would face slightly harder competition in the first round (Atlanta would be matched up with the Pelicans instead of the Nets at the moment).

The other consequence of the top 16 method is that the best teams in a conference might not meet until the Finals.  If the Warriors and the two seed in the West have the best records, they are now the most likely potential Finals match up. To illustrate these details, let’s take a look at the 2013-14 NBA season and see how re-seeding via the top 16 method affects things:

1. Spurs (62-20)
16. Bobcats (43-39)
8. Warriors (51-31)
9. Grizzlies (50-32)
4. Pacers (56-26)
13. Raptors (48-34)
5. Heat (54-28)
12. Suns (48-34)
2. Thunder (59-23)
15. Nets (44-38)
7. Blazers (54-28)
10. Mavs (49-33)
3. Clippers (57-25)
14. Wizards (44-38)
6. Rockets (54-28)
11. Bulls (48-34)

So things look a little different.  The best of the East, Heat/Pacers, would be meeting in the second round for the honor of playing the Spurs, while the Suns go from out of the playoffs to one of the better low seeds.  The Nets and Wizards, who both won a round in the playoffs, are now likely to lose to far superior first round foes.  The Finals would likely have been Spurs against the Thunder/Clippers winner.

Are these changes a good or bad thing?  The Suns get better treatment.  As for the change to the Finals, it is tough to say.  On the one hand, fans might want to see the best teams play for the title in the title round.  On the other hand, divisions/conferences become almost meaningless under this new system.

My first reaction was to wonder if divisions/conferences are important in any way other than for setting up All-Star games.  In the NBA, the league is aligned by geography and the division structure primarily helps reduce travel time.  It could also be unwieldy travel-wise.  What happens, if the Lakers or Clippers end up playing multiple playoff series on the East coast?  Putting travel aside, do the divisions provide any other benefit?

Well, every single sports league has them for a variety of reasons.  Both Major League Baseball and the NFL have created separate conferences through mergers and, therefore, the conferences are separated by history and not geography.  (The NHL divisions are geographically divided).  The NFL and MLB do have some serious divisional rivalries.  Still, the average fan from Ohio probably doesn’t particularly care who plays in the Super Bowl/World Series if his or her team is not participating.  So, if the NFL adopted the 16-seed system and the two best teams in the Super Bowl came from the same conference (e.g., the Seahawks played the Giants or Packers), it would not really affect viewership or interest more so than the current system.

But smaller divisions matter.  During a long regular season, teams need to point to some sort of rivalries to make things interesting.  To randomly play large amounts of teams, absent divisions, definitely takes some juice from each game.

The counterargument, though, is that there would be a division made up of 30 teams would eventually yield new and unanticipated rivalries.  In other words, if two random teams with no history (say, Sacramento and Orlando) are vying for the top seed in the NBA, they will naturally become rivals.  This is true to an extent but smaller divisions create potential recurring rivalries and historical/recurring rivalries can have a little more oomph to the fans than a random rivalry that could change year-to-year.

Taken all together, what can we conclude?

-The current system is slightly unfair to a few good/pretty-good teams in the West, who will miss the playoffs or have lower seeds than they should in a true 16-team playoff bracket.  I don’t see this as a major problem, as the few teams who get screwed by the system are not likely to make noise in the playoffs and are counterbalanced by the few crappy East teams that get slightly more fan interest.  Also, the 2013-14 Suns are something of an anomaly.  No other team with so many wins has ever missed the playoffs under the modern 16-team system.  It is not likely that this will happen again (the Pelicans will probably miss the playoffs with about 44 or 45 wins), though the overall point that better West teams will miss the playoffs will still remain.

-Where there is an imbalance at the top of the conferences, the current system is also somewhat unfair.  The top West teams would probably be able to go one round further in a new system.  Still, no one is crying for the Clipps and Thunder, as they eventually have to beat the best team in the NBA no matter the round.  Nor is there any evidence that the non-hometown NBA fans really care which teams match up in the Finals, so long as the games are entertaining (which has clearly been the case the last few years).

-Smaller divisions serve a purpose.  There are natural rivalries that can be played out year after year, and this has some value, particularly since travel issues make for an imbalanced schedule (East teams only play West teams twice per year versus four or more times against teams in their own conference).  Perhaps as travel becomes more and more efficient, this can changed but the fans will still need these smaller sub-divisions to focus rooting interest.  (As a side thought, if the NBA really has aspirations to create a European division, the need for an imbalanced schedule will be even more acute because the Euro teams can’t travel to the Western United States routinely).

Based upon all this, if given the choice between the current system and a pure record based 16-team playoff bracket, I would have to choose the current system.  There is some middle ground where the NBA could tweak the system around the margins (i.e., requiring playoffs teams to be over .500 or rewarding a team with a lot of wins a better seed) but these are small tweaks.  In all, though, it is probably better to leave things alone unless the tweaks are logical and easy for the fans to follow.

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