Why The NBA Should Keep Its New Format
By Martin Rogers
Thursday was decision day in the NBA — and due to the success of the improvised formula for determining this year's postseason, the league itself will soon have a choice to make, too.
That’s because the method that ultimately led to at least one 8 vs. 9 play-in game over this coming weekend has already proven worthy enough for there to be sustained calls for its retention. At some point over the coming months, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his colleagues will have to decide whether this has all been a one-time flirtation, or something that lingers.
Let's hope they make the right pick.
I'll admit — when it was first proposed, I thought the new format was clunky and arbitrary. On the surface, it didn’t really sound that exciting.
Provided the No. 9 seed in either conference was within four games of the 8th place finisher at the conclusion of the regular season, there would be a play-in series. If the No. 8 seed won the first game, that team would advance immediately. To go through, the No. 9 seed would need to win two games.
Fine enough, one supposes.
Yet, it has given us some of the best basketball entertainment we could have wished for. On Thursday, four games of significance took place, with the Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs still in the hunt for the two open spots.
And once again, with the carrot of an unexpected playoff spot beckoning, Damian Lillard exploded into life for the Blazers, putting up insane numbers, highlight reel plays, fearless offensive output and a legacy-shaping streak of form.
Devin Booker, presented with a similar opportunity, had been just as transcendent for the Phoenix Suns, pushing them to a flawless bubble record, right to the brink of elimination for a playoff spot.
“This is unbelievable,” former NBA All-Star Antoine Walker said of Booker. “This is great for the league. It shows teams that you can build through the draft. Devin Booker has turned himself into a star who will be a Hall of Fame player one day. This team is going to be dynamic next year and be very competitive.”
The play-in idea is something that has been perfect for now — and is still worthwhile moving forward. Anything that brings this much fun to the final weeks of the regular season simply has to be strongly considered.
Like many, I believe that 82 games spread over seven months of action should realistically be enough to definitively decide the top eight teams in each conference. However, what are sometimes snoozy nights as the campaign winds down have this time been anything but.
The NBA has made this workable by a neat execution of its formula. If it was a straight 8 vs. 9 shootout, that would be somewhat unfair. But by dictating that the No. 9 seed must win twice to advance offsets the criticism relating to fairness.
“You don’t want bad teams in the playoffs, but this feels about right,” Spurs fan Ella Morris told me. “I don’t know if it is by luck or design but it has been really fun — and quite nerve wracking.”
It would be an outstanding idea made even better if, in the future, all potentially decisive games were played on the final day of the season at the same time to enhance the drama. Broadcasters could flick backwards and forwards between the relevant matchups as things get tense toward the end.
Such scenarios regularly play out on the last day of various soccer leagues around the world, where the title itself is usually decided on a strict points basis.
The play-in component kept teams motivated, like the previously flat Spurs. When San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich was asked what he would tell someone if they told him a month ago that his team could have gone 6-2 in the NBA's restart and still possibly made the playoffs, he responded, “I would have had them drug-tested.”
And that is the whole point. When a big prize is at stake, teams either raise their game or crack under the pressure. The unexpected can, and will often take place.
Like many things during these odd days, the play-in portion of bubble life has taken us by surprise. That in itself is a reason to keep it.