Trading playoff formats? | Magic Basketball



Mar 22

Trading playoff formats?

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Which one of your friend’s is most interested in the NBA? Just for fun, call that person and say, “the NBA is changing their playoff format to single elimination next year and they are going to play the games at neutral sites.”

What kind of reaction do you think you will receive? My guess is somewhere between shocked and shocked. After a few seconds of silence, your friend will probably ask to be talked through the new rules. Yes, you need to tell them that the Spurs may dominate the Western Conference for 82 games, but their season could end abruptly with one slip up versus the Nuggets in the opening round of the playoffs. Oh yeah, you’ll also need to remind them that the Spurs and Nuggets match-up will be played at a neutral site, probably the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Now, identify the friend of yours that is most interested in NCAA basketball. Call that friend and explain to them that the NCAA is considering getting rid of the current March Madness setup and would like to introduce a series playoff system.

That’s right. Instead of the crazy popular single elimination format, the Kentucky Wildcats will now host three games of a best of five series against the Vanderbilt Commodores. Yes, we know Kentucky only lost two games all season. Yes, that does mean Vanderbilt will need to beat Kentucky three times in five games with at least one of the victories coming in Kentucky. Yes, that also means since Kentucky had the best record in the regular season they will host all playoff series. Yes, that includes the championship series.

How many NBA fans would like to go to a single elimination tournament? Not many. How many NCAA fans would like to go a series format? Probably even fewer. It’s funny that both of these arrangements sound so miserable because the other league actually uses the systems discussed above.

Completely ignoring money and talent (easy to do, right?), the biggest difference between NBA and NCAA basketball is the way games and playoffs are set up to benefit certain teams. The NBA system caters to the best teams and the NCAA system caters to underdogs.

Individual games
Professional games are 20 percent longer than college games. This benefits the best teams because the longer a game goes, the more likely it is that the better team will win. Fewer minutes in a game or series introduce more luck into the equation and inferior opponents are better off when more luck is involved.

Next, the NCAA shot clock is about 50 percent longer than an NBA shot clock. A shorter shot clock in the NBA means more possessions per game and more possessions per game means the better team is more likely to win. For example, the Nuggets burn through about 95 possessions per game. The fastest team in college basketball, Seattle University, only mustered about 77 possessions per game this season. Those additional 18 trips per game go a long way in boosting the better team to victory. Or, from a different perspective, 18 fewer possessions per game provides underdogs with a better opportunity to be within striking distance at the end of a game.

Doesn’t it seem like college basketball teams just pour in three-point buckets? The three-point shot is a great strategy for underdogs. The shot is worth 50 percent more than shots inside the arc (obviously in both leagues), but the three-point line in college is three feet closer to the hoop than its NBA counterpart. For comparison, 29 college basketball teams had three-point percentages of 39 percent or more this season. Only the Spurs have a three-point percentage higher than 39 percent in the professional ranks this season.

This is where the NBA and NCAA go completely different directions.

College basketball rewards its best teams with…. wait. What does it do to reward its best teams?
The very best teams are given the No. 1 overall seed and an almost guaranteed victory in their first tournament game. After that game, the rest of their games are versus pretty good teams. To make matters worse, the games are played at neutral sites. Teams are often put as close to home as possible, but the fans at tournament games have a knack for supporting the Cinderella teams and making life miserable for the top seeds.

If that wasn’t enough, the great squads can have one tough night and be bounced by a team who went bonkers from beyond the arc. To be fair, I think the higher ranked team may be listed as the home team on the scoreboard and can even wear their home jerseys. Some prize!

You all know what the playoff situation is in the NBA. The best teams host the series, the best teams usually win the series, and the best teams usually meet in the Finals.

Final horn
Lots of people love the NCAA. Lots of people love the NBA.

I love being able to watch a setup that favors David, and I love being able to watch a setup the favors Goliath. Neither arrangement is better than the other, but they both provide great entertainment for basketball fans all over the world.

Just please never switch the formats, but that’s just me.

What say you?


I remember reading an article a while back about a single elimination tournament for the 8 seed (Top 7 locked in) by the bottom 8 teams in each conference. I thought that would certainly be exciting, but how they would work the draft lottery around that to prevent teams from tanking would be interesting.


I'd imagine the Bobcats wouldn't sacrifice a lottery pick for the opportunity to be swept in the first round. But it would be really exciting in my opinion, and most likely give a more interesting 1-8 matchup since the 8 seed would be coming in hot.


I don't know if I would ever want the formats switched.  I will say that I've thought about a sort of elimination or "wild-card" round in the first round of the NBA might be pretty cool.  The top seeded teams would get a pass and they would move on to the second round which would be a series.  The first round would be either single or double elimination.  I'm thinking the best compromise is a best of 3 series since it still retains the idea of multiple games but it's shorter than a best of 7 or the old best of 5 setup.  They'll never go for this because it means less games but I think it would be exciting and would give the first round a personality all its own.