Dave Benz: An idea to refine, improve NBA playoff structure

What if Karl-Anthony Towns and Dirk Nowitzki had to battle it out in a single-elimination tournament for the West's No. 8 seed?
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Tourney …

With the NBA’s regular season having reached the finish line, 16 teams are gearing up for a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy while 14 other teams are turning their attention to the offseason and the draft lottery. For those 14 it all feels so empty. But what if it really wasn’t the end? What if the NBA took a page from the NCAA to add in another layer of drama and hope?

There is little doubt the NBA game is a far more refined and overall better product than anything NCAA basketball has to offer. But there is one thing the NCAA has that the NBA is sorely lacking … a single elimination, win or go home tournament.

Well, I guess that’s not entirely true, if you count the Las Vegas Summer League’s annual coronation process. But that’s a league reserved mostly for rookies and NBA hopefuls, not the league’s mainstays.

I’m talking about an actual, leave-it-all-on-the-floor, every-loose-ball-is-vital-to-survival, single elimination tourney involving bona fide NBA regulars. Every game is Game 7! Imagine the possibilities! Imagine the money to be made!

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No, I’m not proposing revamping the NBA’s playoff process altogether. A seven-game series is truly the best way to crown a champion as anything can happen in a one-game scenario. But that’s what makes it wonderful, and NBA can have both!

Here’s my proposal. The league changes its current playoff format so only the top seven teams in each conference lock in a playoff berth. There would be no change to the current criteria for determining these teams and the playoff bracket also remains unchanged — with one glaring exception. The top seed in each conference would have to wait a few days to find out who it would be playing as the eighth seed in the opening round.

That’s because the bottom eight teams in each conference, the ones who didn’t lock up a playoff berth, will all head to Las Vegas for the NBA tournament to determine who gets the eight seed. Those 16 teams would play 14 games over a five-day span with the two teams that emerge claiming that final playoff spot.

Here’s how it could work. The eight teams in each conference would be seeded according to regular playoff seeding criteria. The No. 8 seed would play the 15 seed, 9 vs. 14, 10 vs. 13 and 11 vs. 12. The teams would be bracketed NCAA tourney-style with the winners advancing and the losers going home.

Days one and two of the tourney would feature quadruple headers with one conference taking day one and the other conference taking day two. Days three and four would feature doubleheaders for the four semifinal games. Day five would feature another doubleheader with the two “championship” games.

Two teams would end up playing that final and decisive game as the back of a back-to-back, but unfortunate as this would be, there is no travel involved, that would be the only back-to-back set of the entire tourney and since both those teams would be playing each other there would be no competitive advantage for either side.

(And if you really wanted to get crazy, maybe the NBA could steal a page from MLB and let the All-Star Game winner be the conference that gets day one in Vegas and thus won’t have the back-to-back to finish this tourney.)

The two teams to emerge move onto the actual NBA playoffs as the eight seed … against a one seed that still has home court and rest on its side but now will have to square off against a team riding some momentum. Suddenly that first-round series just got a lot more interesting.

But more importantly, just think about how great the basketball itself in Vegas would be. Think of the level of energy Karl-Anthony Towns would bring to the floor with a bonus chance at ending the Timberwolves 13-year playoff drought.  Imagine Dirk diving to the floor for a loose ball like a senior from a mid-major as he tries to get one last taste of the playoffs.

It would offer both redemption and heart break all in one fell swoop. And it would be fabulous.

The first two days of the tourney could become like the first two days of the NCAA tourney, with people taking sick days or at the very least secretly streaming it on their office computer. The lesser-weights of the NBA could lay claim to two days of sports mania. It would be must-see TV.

And the true die-hards will view it as a must-attend event. Imagine getting to see 14 single-elimination NBA games in Vegas over the span of five days! If the summer league can draw a crowd, what can this do?

Most people to whom I’ve floated this idea seem to love it. But a few questions have been raised, such as: how would the NBA fit this into its schedule, wouldn’t this negate the relevance of the regular season, and how would this affect the draft lottery. While I by no means have the definitive answers to these questions, I have some thoughts.

The way the NBA spaces out the first round of the playoffs under its current format adding in these extra days to hold the tourney would not have to affect the overall length of the playoffs. The six series not involving the yet-to-be-determined eight seeds could even get underway after the two days of quadruple headers have been completed.

Given the revenue stream this tourney could (and should) create I’m confident the league could figure out a way to squeeze in these days without too much trouble.

And I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this tourney making the regular season less meaningful. Fourteen teams would still get a guaranteed playoff berth. Now the regular season just became a race for seventh instead of a race for eighth. If you don’t want to put your fate in the hands of a single-elimination, anything-can-happen game then play your way into the top seven! No coach is actually going to want his team to have to go to Vegas (though they’ll be grateful the opportunity exists once they do).

As for the lottery; since every team now would have an equal chance of getting into the playoffs, every team that goes to Vegas gets the same number of balls in the lottery. The lone change I would suggest would be that only the top-two spots in the draft be determined by the lottery. Thus a team would not get knocked back any more than two spots from where they would have selected based on record. (Hence the worst record would have to “win” the lottery to maintain one of the top-two picks but could drop no lower than third.)

This would not only prove an effective deterrent to tanking but would also present the possibility that a team could conceivably win the NBA title and the NBA Draft in the same year (with their own actual pick)!

I’m sure there are tweaks to this idea that could make it even better but I submit this as a starting point for conversation to entertain this idea. I know I sure wouldn’t mind having a trip to Vegas on my calendar just a few days from now.

Dave Benz just completed his fifth season as the play-by-play voice for Minnesota Timberwolves basketball on FOX Sports North. You can follow him on Twitter @tweetdavebenz.