Fixin' The NBA Playoffs: A Radical Idea To Shift From 16 to 24 Teams

By Dr. Jeff A. Glenn / @jagadelic

Considering all the foolishness that preceded it, the NBA regular season was a qualified success. However, I think we can all agree that the last month or so was a snooze since most playoff positions were set and teams just mailed it in. Miami didn't seem to care about challenging Chicago for the best record; the Clips didn't put up much of a fight to get the division title from the Lakers or the home field advantage from Memphis. As long as they were in, they were cool.

Let's put our Stern hats on and figure out how to make this a bit more interesting. Currently, in each conference, the three division champs and the next best record get the top four spots. After that, the next four teams fill out the eight-team bracket. Well, what if those last four teams had to fight for their spot in a one-game death match?

Yes, I'm proposing to expand the playoffs slightly. Keep the top four positions as they are, but add a one-game "challenge match" featuring  5 vs 12, 6 vs 11, 7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9. The winners would advance to the playoffs against the top four, who have had an extra day or two to rest.

This accomplishes several key objectives. First, it puts a new emphasis on winning the division and making certain you get one of the top four spots. Right now, the difference between 4 and 5 is a home game, but no one wants to play a sudden death game that could bounce them from the dance before it starts. The Clips, Lakers and Grizz would have had an entirely different attitude coming down the stretch, since only two of those teams would have avoided the challenge game. We certainly would have seen Kobe play that last game and go for the scoring title if something had been on the line. Fans pay top dollar for tickets, and the NBA should feel an obligation to make end of season games worth something. No one wants to watch D-League quality games at NBA prices.

Second, it brings a little of the NCAA tourney flavor to the NBA. Fans have enthusiastically embraced the the one and done format of the college hoop tourney. We could have a touch of this in the NBA while giving teams an added incentive to finish at their best and avoid having to engage in such stressful dramatics. College stars who go to bad teams like Wall, Irving, Cousins, etc. would get one chance to stand out on national TV and stay in the spotlight instead of dropping off the face of the earth.

It also gives teams who get off to a terrible start (due to youth or injuries) a chance to make some noise. Under this format, every team would have been in the running until the end (except the Bobcats). Everyone except MJ's crew finished within five games of the 12 spot. This might eliminate a good deal of suspected tanking and restore integrity to the latter stages of the season. Would Deron have been able to play if there was some earthly reason to? Would Golden State have traded Ellis if they were not out completely out of the running? Would Sacramento and their young talent pushed a little harder if there was a reward for finishing in the top 12?

Of course, the number one reason for this new format is that old standby - Money! The NBA is not going to contract. Therefore, the next move is to give small market teams the best chance of playing a full regular season with something on the line. It would bring some excitement and boost ticket sales as teams at the bottom fight to get that 11 or 12 spot and pull the upset that would bring them to the dance. Sports is in a great position to bring in new bucks, especially with local cable deals that are starved for programming. Sports are in demand right now due to that great invention, the DVR. Advertisers fear that they are not getting their money's worth, because people record their favorite shows and watch them at their convenience while fast forwarding the commercials.

However, sports programming is one of the only formats that people still watch in real time. Therefore, the commercials have a much better chance of being seen. All the major sports are looking to take advantage of this and plan to profit accordingly. It doesn't look like Mr. Goddell will get his 18 game season. Look for his backup plan to expand the playoffs to 16 teams. Baseball has already moved to expand the postseason with a one game, sudden death wild card battle. If this is successful, look for the NBA to employ something similar like the plan advanced here.

In an ideal world, I would not like to see all this expansion, but we live in a world of intense competition for the entertainment dollar. Fans who own terrific home theaters will not come out to watch a team with no chance and players and coaches who have wised up and will not put out maximum effort just to get an extra home game. Maybe you don't like it either, but it's coming, so we may as well prepare by having a thought-out plan in place. I'm sure Mr. Stern and his merrymen are plotting as we speak!

19 Replies to “Fixin' The NBA Playoffs: A Radical Idea To Shift From 16 to 24 Teams”

  1. Roger Goodell had the league rearrange scheduling so more division games were toward the end of the season. Has something like this already been implemented? A longer post-season doesn't sound appetizing.. I frankly think its entirely too long already and tend to only tune in towards the end of SOME of the series. The one game death match is appealing but I would rather take the entire NCAA tournament format, 1-and-done, to the NBA. (coming from someone who shows more interest into college hoop anyway.) Then, i most certainly wouldn't mind more teams in the Playoffs.Unfortunately, that won't happen.

  2. I agree with you in theory. As a basketball fan, I'd rather see fewer playoff teams and games. But, like you said, it's not going to happen. If I owned the Wizards, Kings, Timberwolves, etc., I would be looking for a way to make the last two months of the season relevant.

    Scheduling more division games late in the season would be meaningless in the NBA. In the NFL, winning the division is a big deal; it guarantees you a home playoff game. In the NBA, you get an extra home game in a best of 7 series. Not a big deal.

    When I was coming up, the NBA had 23 teams and 16 went to the playoffs. Sophisticated fans laughed at bad teams getting in but 20 or 21 of the 23 teams still had hope late in the season. They now have 30 teams and have not expanded the number of playoff teams since 1985.

    Expansion is coming. It always does. I'm not for it but I am a realist. Just looking for an interesting way to do it. If you don't want teams to tank, you had better give them some reason to try to win.

  3. I don't think I could possibly disagree more with any type of expansion in the NBA or NHL playoffs. 16 damn teams make the postseason. That's more than half the teams in the league. If you can't crack the top half, I don't see why you should be given one extra chance to make it. I mean, at that point the entire regular season becomes almost irrelevant, even more than it already is in some fans' eyes.

    Now, I'm not necessarily opposed to bucking tradition on things. I think the wild card in football and baseball has been a success and good for the game. But why does everything in society these days have to be more inclusive, more accommodating to everyone? Nearly the entire league should not be involved in a playoff atmosphere. That's absurd.

    I think this kind of mentality is why sports have become so soft. Now, it's not fair that this team didn't make it or that team didn't make it. The more we give and give and give to include every team, the more we take away from the game, in my opinion.

    Sometimes less is more.

  4. You have valid points, Rev. But you're not my target audience. You're a big time sports fan who will show love for his Sixers through thick and thin.

    I'm talking business here. Just like a politician needs to attract independent voters to win an election, a sports franchise needs to attract casual fans to maximize profits.

    You say this expansion makes the regular season even more meaningless. I disagree. It adds meaning. Good teams will push to make the top 4 and avoid that challenge game. Marginal teams will want to finish top 8 to make sure they get home court for the challenge game. Bad teams will just try to make it to the challenge game.

    Everyone has something to play for. Tanking and resting starters down the stretch will not be eliminated but minimized as teams have more on the line.

    1. I definitely hear you on the money train, and that's exactly why these type of things come up. But as a fan, I hate it.

      I don't agree with you that it will make the regular season more meaningful, because now it's more of a "everyone has a shot no matter what" scenario. Sure, teams will want to secure spots and not have to make that tournament, but then all the rest will be just make it to the tournament. If home court isn't an incentive for some teams now, it may not be even in the one-game format. Maybe it would, I don't know, but I don't think bad teams should even have the chance to make the playoffs.

      That's just me, obviously, but when your sport already has more than half the teams eligible for postseason play, I don't see any reason whatsoever to give even more teams a spot. Why not all 30 teams then? Where do we draw the line?

      Plus, what if the 24th team makes it to the first round - and then we get a series like the Heat vs. the Bobcats? Who the hell is going to watch that? A four-game sweep with a point differential of 30, no thanks.

      I mean, if the people want it, more power to them. But this person doesn't. Not at all.

  5. I hear you, brother, and I cannot argue the point that adding more playoff teams makes a mockery of the regular season to some extent. But it's the price we pay to remain competitive in the 21st century entertainment landscape. It's not the 1960's anymore when Baseball was King and didn't even have playoffs. The first place team in each league just played the World Series. I prefer that as you do but the toothpaste ain't going back in the tube.

    Your argument has in its basis an assumption that all 30 teams have an equal chance to make the playoffs when the season starts. If you aren't good enough to make the top half, that's tough. Improve your team and try again next year.

    Well, we know that's not true. The Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, Bulls, Mavs and Knicks have a clear advantage. They bring in much more revenue and are attractive to top tier free agents. Making the playoffs is not only expected, a first round loss is a bitter disappointment. Low market/ revenue teams can set an optimistic goal to be competitive maybe 4 years out of 10.

    Trying to get someone to buy the Hornets put some extra grey into Stern's hair. Who wants a team that's doomed from the start? But the new format would help a little. You could sell a prospective owner on putting together a scrappy team of high draft picks and 2nd tier free agents. Maybe the team starts slow and improves but won't finish .500. They can still go for a low playoff spot, pull an upset in the challenge game, travel to Chicago, oops, Rose's knee blew out - and it's off to the races!

    Expansion is coming. Might as well come up with a fun way to achieve it.

  6. I like the fact that you are thinking outside the box here. Rev has a point about having half the teams make the playoffs. We do however need to sure up the end of the season and make games more meaningful for season ticketholders who have been waiting all year to see Kobe and Lebron come to town only to watch them chill on the bench in a suit.
    Interestingly enough, they could shrink the regular season schedule down by 10 games. That would place more of an emphasis on playing harder. Interestingly enough the NFL is looking to add games and they will be facing the same thing when teams clinch early.
    Good post

  7. You and Rev are correct on an ideal basis. But not when dealing with reality. I love your suggestion of shrinking the regular season by 10 games. More rest, fewer injuries and higher quality regular season games would be the result.

    However, another result is the loss of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in lost revenue from the 10 games. It's not going to happen. Please name a sports league that reduced its number of regular season games. No way.

    Please indulge me one more point. The regular season is already rigged. Take the six big market teams I mentioned earlier and add Miami, Orlando and the Clips. Miami and Orlando because living in Florida is very popular with NBA players and there's no state sales tax to take a bite out of those big contracts. Add the Clips because the Staples Center and Hollywood have great appeal as well.

    That's nine teams that really have no excuse for missing the playoffs. And, in fact, all nine made the playoffs this year. That leaves 7 playoff spots for the remaining 21 teams. In the East, it's even worse. If the Knicks, Sixers, Magic, Heat, Bulls and Celtics are practically shoo ins, only 2 playoff spots are available for the remaining 9 teams.

    Something's got to be done to keep the fans of those teams interested.

    1. Here's my problem with what you're saying. You're saying that because certain teams play in bigger markets, they already have an advantage, which isn't fair to the smaller-market teams. True. But that's the case in every sport in the entire world. Big markets with attractive living situations have an advantage. That doesn't mean they guarantee making the playoffs. Just look at the Knicks.

      Teams should overcome that with good management and smart organizational building, i.e., good coaching, good drafting, and yeah, luck like drafting a Tim Duncan and/or Kevin Durant, not by shifting the actual competitive rules to let worse-run organizations. That's not going to make those destinations any more attractive to players. The NYCs, Miamis, Bostons are still going to have that "built-in advantage."

      You get excitement and lure players by creating a winning atmosphere. That's how it works. Sure, the big boys have the edge ... just like they have the edge in everything else in the entire world. Dumbing down the sport isn't the answer in my eyes. Better run organizations with more responsible people is.

  8. This is somewhat reminiscent of Bill Simmons' "Entertaining as Hell" tournament. The same bottom teams would all be in a single-elimination tournament, with the winner in each conference getting the 8th seed. This way all the other 1-7 seeds would get about a week off and the hottest team in each conference would be facing the #1 seed. I like giving a shot to teams and fan-bases without hope, but I don't know if the possibility of seeds 5-8 all being eliminated in one game would be the best way of going about it.

    1. I agree with many of the points made, but I do like the focus of what JAG's saying. Could the NBA spice up the "tournament" a little bit. Yes they could, if it were an actual tournament. This is a playoff tournament, with elongated series setup to prove which team is better over a 7-game series. The NBA could actually benefit from having less playoff teams like baseball, but that would mean less money and they ain't having it. A one-game playoff scenario featuring 9-24 could be fun, but it nets out about the same as what we'd have before, with the possibility of more mediocre teams making the "dance."

      I would rather see something where 17-32 could play each other in a battle royal for the #1 pick in the draft. Teams would be going all out to get Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Of course, Charlotte would then never have any real chance of the No.1 seed and I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

      There should be something that prevents tanking, but realistically outside of the '95 Rockets who were a No. 6 seed out West, teams just don't emerge from the bottom. The NBA playoffs, better than any league with a postseason, do the best job of tree-shaking and determining who is the best team in a given season. In football, you can debate who the best was, no matter who won the national title/super bowl. Same with baseball. You can't do that in the NBA, because the playoff process proves once and for all who is #1.

      Great read JAG, glad this could turn into a strong back and forth dialogue.

    2. Bruce - I just saw Simmons discussing this. The only problem is that a 16 team tourney would take too long. The union would not allow players to play four games in four days. This ain't the NCAA where you can do whatever you want with the unpaid labor force. NBA players have rights that are collectively bargained.

      However, you could have a 4 team play in. 8 vs 11 and 9 vs 10. Then the two winners play for the 8 spot. This would not delay the playoffs starting by more than a day or so.

      This compromise idea might be the way to go.

  9. @ Rev - Yes, small market teams can still have some success with good coaching, shrewed GM moves and a lucky lottery pick or two. But Durant and Duncan are the exception. They agreed to re-sign with small market teams. Most big stars don't.

    You're right. Expanding the playoffs won't lure players to small market teams. But it might increase ticket sales and help local cable TV ratings in those areas if those teams have something to play for. The added revenue in addition to the other factors you mentioned will help them compete from time to time.

    @ Bruce - I don't want the top teams to have to cool their heels for over a week. You lose timing and your competitive edge. Also, fans don't want to sit around once the regular season ends.

    Do you have any doubt that playoff expansion is coming? Neither do I. I just hope that a plan like I proposed is instituted. The nightmare scenario is having 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, etc. in a 7 game series. Ugh!

    @ Ed - If the playoffs were expanded to 24, having the six bottom teams play for the #1 draft pick would be interesting. However, there's no incentive for the players to try very hard. I can see it now. "Coach, let me understand this. If we win, that means some rookie is going to come here and take my job?"


    Thanks for posting my write up. I enjoyed the feedback.

  10. I feel that specifically for the NBA, not too many underdog teams advance too far into the playoffs. It's typically those 5 or 6 teams you mentioned earlier making it into the finals. If this is so, adding more teams with less of a chance to advance won't encourage me to watch the added games (again, coming from someone who isn't as big of an NBA fan.) Revenue WILL be made by the fans of those underdog teams which is enough incentive for any franchise to side with you (JAG). I'm just not sure the 1-and-done will generate enough money from spectators that are outside of that particular teams' fan-base who does make it into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.

    I'm just trying to wrap my head around it. On the business side, this all makes sense. As a fan, I want to see the big games and the big games only.

    E- having the 17-35 play for #1 draft pick sounds like it would all be pick-up games. I don't want to watch all the worst teams compete. I'd rather them just draw from a hat for first pick. And the whole tanking scenario, I agree: if you know you have no chance at winning the playoffs but might get stuck playing in that 1-and done game, what will prevent the team from losing on purpose to be the best of the worst? The whole "Suck for Luck" comes to mind.

    Please continue to enlighten me,

    B. Long

  11. Well said, B. Long.

    Casual fans will not tune into these extra "challenge games". That's why I only want them to be one game, not a 5 or 7 game series. They are strictly to give hope and raise interest for teams and fan bases who are usually not in the running. A second chance for teams who faltered at the starting gate, if you will.

    Small market teams need ticket sales and good local cable ratings to stay competitive. They suffer when they're completely out of the running by the All Star Break.

    It's not much different from a lottery ticket. "A dollar and a dream". We may be in last place now, but if we can tighten up and get to the 12 spot, anything can happen...

  12. Let's see...I read the article and most of the comments.

    Basically, I think Jag is right something has to change with the NBA tournament system.

    For me the best and easiest change would be a wild card like round for the NBA playoffs. I don't think the number of teams in should change or if it did only had enough to create one more bracket or something.

    Wild Card weekend is my favorite weekend of football! I love the suspense and the Cinderella stories that come up, hello Tim Tebow. Bringing that to the NBA could help revenues all around.

    Finally, most comments are right in the fact that cutting games will not happen as that cuts profits. And Rev is so right when he says that more than half the league shouldn't be in the playoffs. However, I don't think playing for the draft is the answer either. This may work for some younger teams with no stars but who wants to risk the injury of a "star" player i.e., the best you have to work with, for a slot that may or may not help the team - this site has talked about failed/low performing high draft picks.

    Again, nice article and I do hope that the NBA does something to spice up the playoffs a bit 🙂

  13. Thanks, DNKB - I know your doctoral studies have got you trump tight so I appreciate your taking the time to check this out.

    I like your idea but since 16 teams are already in, there's really no way to do a "wild card weekend" in the NBA. What I've proposed is as close as I could figure out to get to it. Eight knockout games over three days.

    To get some good PR out of it and quiet the complaints that these games are unnecessary, the NBA should make certain that an extra portion of the revenue goes to retired players who are struggling or a charity. No one will come out against that!

  14. Not a bad idea.

    The general public has made it clear that they don't care if mediocre teams make the playoffs, even as more knowledgeable fans turn up their noses. If they did, the NCAA tourney would still have 16 teams, or 32 at the most. The number of Bowl Games makes traditionalists want to puke. But they make money.
    It's all about filling TV programming.

    Sports leagues are not just about finding the best way to crown a champion. They are also about finding out what the fans are willing to pay for and giving it to them.

    The Oscars now have nine films up for Best Picture instead of five. People tune in if their favorite movie is up for an award; they don't seem to care how many others are.

  15. I think expansion is coming. If Stern and the owners think they can make a nickel off of an idea, they'll implement it. But I don't think it's a good thing. I don't believe it will have the impact you think it will. It's shortsighted and will cheapen the game in the long run.

    You're saying that fans of a bad 28-42 team that sits 13th out of 15 teams in a conference will maintain interest because they are in a struggle for the 12 spot? I think that insults the fans' intelligence. They know a bad team when they see one and trying to dupe them into paying attention because they have a chance to go on the road and play #5 seed that's actually good won't work.

    However, like you said, Stern probably already has people looking into this and if there's a buck to be made, they'll make it. We just saw them play a compressed 66 game season that significantly hurt the quality of regular season competition. But they smiled all the way to the bank

    If the Poinsettia Bowl can make money, I guess there are enough folks who will watch just about anything.

    Bottom line: They'll make a few bucks but overall, it will further weaken the already low value of regular season games.

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