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Playoffs Are for Winners

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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The National Basketball Association is holding its next Board of Governors meeting this week in New York, where it is expected to again address what has become a rite of spring: how to fix the competitive imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences by revamping the playoffs.

Last season, a 48-34 team (Phoenix) failed to qualify for the Western playoffs, while a 37-45 team (Atlanta) qualified in the East. This season, Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook are sitting out the West playoffs despite their 45-37 record, while Boston (40-42) and Brooklyn (38-44) have qualified in the East.

The owners should consider implementing this non-conference-specific rule for the 2017 (not 2016, as explained below) postseason: In order to qualify for the playoffs, a team must have a .500-or-better record AND be among the top eight teams in its conference. If one conference has nine or more winning teams and the other conference has seven or fewer -- such as this season -- the winning team, or teams, crosses over and joins the opposing conference’s playoffs.

The only situation in which a sub-.500 team could qualify for the playoffs is when there aren’t at least nine .500-or-better teams in the other conference.

This would produce three worthy outcomes. First, by eliminating teams with losing records from the postseason, it would enhance competition during the playoffs.

Since the 1995-1996 season, when the NBA expanded to 30 teams, the cumulative record of sub-.500 teams in the playoffs is an abysmal 13-52. These losing teams have participated in a total of 14 series, half of which resulted in sweeps. That’s bad television, something ESPN and TNT should be fighting to eliminate, having now paid almost three times more for NBA rights beginning in 2016-2017.

Second, this would be a less invasive fix than allowing the 16 teams with the best records into the playoffs, seeding them in order, and having them fly all over the country, without regard to the fact there is too much travel during the NBA season as it is.  

These proponents make a fair point in a league where the West has dominated the last decade, with an eye-popping record of 263-187 against the East this season alone. But NBA players are not road warriors angling for exit-row seats. These are high-performance athletes -- some of the best in the world -- who are performing before worldwide audiences of millions. The less travel, the better -- yes, even travel that occurs on private charter jets. It is hard on the body and sleep patterns (especially for teams in the West, which travel far more miles than teams in the East for interconference play) to be perpetually flying to the next city for six months out of the year. If anything, the league should be exploring ways to reduce travel, not increase it.

The third outcome is one of principle: The postseason should belong to winning teams, not losing ones, and every effort should be made to eliminate losing teams from being rewarded, regardless of their conference.

Unfortunately, no solution is perfect, and there would be rare instances in which a losing team gets in to complete a 16-team bracket (necessary for scheduled TV slots).

This season is illustrative. Here are this season's final Eastern Conference records:

  1. Atlanta: 60-22.
  2. Cleveland: 53-29.
  3. Chicago: 50-32.
  4. Toronto: 49-33.
  5. Washington: 46-36.
  6. Milwaukee: 41-41.
  7. Boston: 40-42.
  8. Brooklyn: 38-44.

And here are the Western Conference records:

  1. Golden State: 67-15.
  2. Houston: 56-26.
  3. L.A. Clippers: 56-26.
  4. Portland: 51-31.
  5. Memphis: 55-27.
  6. San Antonio: 55-27.
  7. Dallas: 50-32.
  8. New Orleans: 45-37.
  9. Oklahoma City: 45-37.

Under the new plan, Oklahoma City would cross over to the Eastern playoffs and qualify as the No. 6 seed based on its record. Milwaukee would drop to No. 7 and Boston would be No. 8, pushing Brooklyn out of the playoff picture.

This is arguably a blow to the No. 3 team in the East, Chicago, which would face Oklahoma City instead of Milwaukee in the first round. In order to soften that blow -- and, as important, limit the travel -- Oklahoma City should be restricted to two home games, Games 3 and 4, so that no more than two round trips are needed for every series in which it crossed over to the opposing conference.

Now comes the hard part: In order to change the postseason system, a three-quarters majority on the board (23 votes) is needed. Finding 23 votes with the Eastern Conference so motivated to maintain the status quo -- where weaker teams have a far easier path into the playoffs and stronger teams prefer playing sub-.500 teams  -- is a stretch now and for the near term. But there comes a breaking point -- and that point, perhaps, is the 2017 season, the first postseason of the new TV deal.

That takes the immediacy out of it. The Philadelphias and New Yorks of the world surely expect to be above .500 two years from now. Things change.

In that vein, it’s worth noting that this particular proposal could have first taken effect in the 1995-1996 postseason. The 41-41 Charlotte Hornets (not yet the Bobcats and not yet the Hornets redux) would have replaced the 39-43 Sacramento Kings and played the No. 1 seed that season: the Seattle SuperSonics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net