David Murphy: There's an NBA playoff format that would satisfy what's best for Damian Lillard and fans everywhere, but it isn't group play

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The Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) looks to drive past the New York Knicks' Elfrid Payton at Madison Square Garden in New York on January 1, 2020. - Emilee Chinn/Getty Images North America/TNS

Damian Lillard is smart. He also happens to be correct. With one of the most viewer-friendly styles of play in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers star has the leverage to ensure that his team is in the best possible position when the season resumes. The best ability is availability, and the NBA needs all that it can get of both as it seeks to minimize the revenue losses it will incur when it plays out the most valuable part of its season without the ability to sell tickets to fans.

Doing so will require that the league milk every last ratings point that will be up for grabs between now and the time that the world forgets the existence of anything beyond football. And doing that will not only require all stars to be on deck, but that those stars have something to play for. After all, ratings are all about drama, and drama is all about stakes.

Chances are, Adam Silver realized all of this well before Lillard went on record to say that he would sit out the remainder of the season if his Trail Blazers did not get a fair chance to make up the three games that they currently trail in the playoff standings. The commish might be a divisive figure here in our fair city, but regardless of how you feel about his alleged role in Sam Hinkie’s exile from the game, he has always come across as a competent and reasonable leader. And such a leader surely understands that the best way for the NBA to maximize viewership over the remainder of its season will be to format that remainder with three priorities in mind:

1. Make every game as entertaining as possible.

2. Make every game as competitive as possible.

3. Make every game as consequential as possible.

Stars, stakes, and style of play. That is the code. It suggests that the NBA would be wise to shake off the shackles of precedent and consider an alternate format to a traditional 16-team first round that is often devoid of drama. But it also suggests that it would be ill-advised to completely reinvent the wheel, as suggested by proponents of a World Cup-style round-robin round.

In the proposed round-robin format, eight teams would eventually compete in a playoff bracket with best-of-seven rounds. But rather than determining those teams with a best-of-seven first round, the field would emerge from a round of group play.

As detailed in a recent piece by The Ringer, the round-robin stage would feature four groups of five teams, with each team in a group coming from one of five tiers. Essentially, the NBA would divide the current top 20 in the standings into tiers of five, with Tier I consisting of the top four teams, Tier II consisting of the next four, and so on.

For instance, in such a scenario, the Sixers would be in Tier III, along with the Rockets, Thunder, and Pacers. They would then be assigned to a group that would also include a team from Tier I, a team from Tier II, a team from Tier IV, and a team from Tier V.


Group A: Bucks, Celtics, Thunder, Mavericks, Trailblazers

Group B: Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans

Group C: Raptors, Jazz, Pacers, Nets, Kings

Group D: Clippers, Heat, Sixers, Magic, Spurs

Each team would play a game against the other four members of its group. The two teams with the best records in these four games would advance from the group to a round of eight, followed by a final four, followed by the NBA Finals, each one a seven-game series.

So, the Sixers would play a game apiece against the Clippers, Heat, Magic, and Spurs, and each of those teams would play a game against each other, and the two teams with the best records in those games would advance to the round of eight.

There are two big problems with such a format. The first, and by far the gravest, is that it would dramatically increase the risk that one or more of the league’s biggest draws would be eliminated after four games. In a typical year, that chance is practically zero.

Take the Lakers, for example. Pre-shutdown, in order to be eliminated from the playoffs before the round of eight, LeBron James and Anthony Davis would have had to lose four of seven games to a borderline .500 team like the Grizzlies. In the round-robin format, the Lakers could conceivably be eliminated by losing two of four to the Nuggets, Rockets, Grizzlies, and Pelicans. A bad shooting night or a bad break against the Grizzlies or the Pelicans would leave them playing potential elimination games against the Nuggets or the Rockets. That might be good for drama within those games, but it isn’t worth the risk that the Lakers are only on television four times instead of an absolute minimum of eight.

The second major problem is a similar one. In a scenario in which all of the top seeds advanced, meager draws like the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Kings, and Magic would end up combining to play as many televised games as the Sixers, Rockets, Thunder, and Pacers. That seems like a suboptimal allocation of resources. In a world in which television ratings are king, it would make more sense to have the latter four play eight games apiece and the first four none. Furthermore, the first round would be capped at 40 televised games. Last year’s first round featured 41 games.

A more ideal format would put the field’s best (i.e., most popular) teams in the best position to maximize their number of games while also putting its worst (i.e., least popular) teams in the best position to maximize the viewing audience of the games they played. It would also maximize the number of times the best teams play games against the best teams, which is one of the major drawbacks of a traditional tournament. In normal years, a top-seeded team would face just three other marquee teams during its path to a title: one in the conference semis, one in the conference finals, and one in the NBA Finals.

Before the hiatus, there were 13 teams that had playoff berths all but secured. There were eight additional teams that would have been within four games of the final three seeds of a 16-team field. Rather than grouping all of those teams together, the NBA could begin its season with a month of play in which the top 13 teams face off against each other, and the bottom eight engage in a double-elimination tournament where each round is a best-of-three series.

The first part is not complicated. Each of the top 13 teams would play one game against the other. The league could manufacture some sort of stakes for the outcome of this portion of the schedule. The most obvious and intriguing option would be to put playoff seeding up for grabs. The team with the best 12-game record gets the first seed. The team with the second-best record gets the second seed. And so on. Using our previous example, this would increase the potential that LeBron exits after one round. But it would also guarantee him a minimum of 16 games before that happened: 12 in the “regular season” and four in the first round.

While these showcase games are playing out between the top 13 teams, the other eight teams would be squaring off against each other for the final three seeds to the “real” playoffs):

Round 1

A Series: Grizzlies-Suns

B Series: Nets-Spurs

C Series: Magic-Kings

D Series: Blazers-Pelicans

Round 2

W Series: Winner A vs. Winner D

X Series: Winner B vs. Winner C

Y Series: Loser A vs. Loser D

Z Series: Loser B vs. Loser C

After two rounds, there would be two teams standing in the winners’ bracket. These two teams would be in the playoffs. The losers’ bracket would then play itself out for two more rounds to determine the final seed.

Round 3

B Series: Loser W vs. Winner Y

C Series: Loser X vs. Winner Z

Round 4

Winner B vs. Winner C

Games would be played every other day for a four-week tournament that would coincide perfectly with the group of 13, who would be playing games every other day with four additional off days mixed in. In one month, you’d have 28 straight days of basketball, with the majority of them featuring either a marquee team or an elimination game.

The start of August would bring the start of a 16-game tournament with four best-of-seven rounds. By the end of it, the NBA champion would have played a minimum of 28 games and a maximum of 40. This, in addition to any “preseason” games that would be staged for the sheer purpose of getting players back into game shape.

What do you say, Dame?


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