A few weeks ago, I was very intrigued by a notification I got on my phone about Adam Silver wanting to change the structure of the NBA Play-offs to include the top 16 teams overall, not top 8 in each division. He said (I stole this from sbnation.com):
“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” Silver said. “And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues of course, but in this day in age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year two is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”
I thought it was a cool idea… For about a millisecond. Then I remembered, I am a sports economist and I can, pretty quickly, figure out how I feel by running the number (yes, you read that correctly – numbers dictate my feelings).
There are only 2 reasons that I can see for wanting to adjust the structure. The first is to improve competitive balance. I wrote before about why the NFL is pretty balanced, competitively. Part of this reason is their single elimination play-off structure. This structure makes upsets more likely as teams with fewer wins one have to beat the “better” team once to continue on. Contrarily, the NBA has seven (that’s right – SEVEN) game series. First to 4 wins… heads to the next round. That doesn’t leave very much room for an upset. Sure, the new structure implemented last year (2-2-1-1-1-1) gives the lower ranked team a slight chance… but not by much. In reality, all it does is make the series last longer. While good for revenue, not so great for the poor players jet-setting around the US.
Anyway, if you look at the winners of the NBA Finals the past 21 years (I was going to say 20 but I went back to 1994 so 21 years it is!) you’ll see some pretty cool stuff (sidenote: I am going to watch the entire 1995 and 1999 play-offs in their entirety).
Of the 42 teams that have played in the finals since 1994, the average ranking (which, if the play-offs worked perfectly, you would expect to be 1.5 as the game would be played between seeds 1 and 2) is about 3.6, meaning most teams fall around the 3rd or 4th seed. Adjusting for outliers, this number falls to 3.1. This indicates that upsets are occurring, but not very often. (Usually, the second ranked team in a conference beats the first ranked team, then plays either the first- or second-ranked team in the other conference, which explains the rank between 3 & 4.) In fact, of the 21 championships played, the lower ranked team has only come out on top 5 times and only twice was that team not in the top 5.
What does this mean? It means that the proposal won’t affect much. Sure, the competition might be a little more intense in the first few rounds but if you’re sending the top 4 teams to the finals anyway (especially after having a good rest while the other 12 go at it for a spot) it’s not much of a mystery who is going to win – it WILL be one of those 4 (at least, 18 out of 21 times from what I can see).
So there’s not much of a case for competitive balance. But I said there were two reasons. The other? Seeing your best teams play.
This reason actually makes good sense… from a revenue stand-point. But isn’t it already happening? Kinda…
Of the 42 teams that have played in the play-offs since 1994, 40 of them have been top 10 teams overall (exceptions: Knicks – 14th in 1999 and the Rockets – 11th in 1994). Only an additional 4 have been ranked lower than 5th overall (exceptions: Celtics – 9th in 2010, Cavaliers – 7th in 2007, Pistons 6th in 2004 and Nets – 8th in 2—3). So 85% of teams have been in the top 5 overall showing us that the best teams are, indeed, getting to the finals.
Sure, there’s the touchy-feely side of things. By taking the best 16 teams overall you are rewarding teams for their hard work. I’m sure it’s a bit sour when you did better than a team in another conference but they get to play-offs and you don’t. And, of course, it solves the problem of the conference “unfairness” – usually one conference is much stronger than the other (at the moment, it’s the West). There’s the fans to think about, as well. Fans love to see their team win so if you’ve been watching your team do well most of the season and they don’t make it to play-offs… that sucks. It can be damaging for a club – especially one that might just be gaining traction in the community – and they might lose fans because of it.
But if you want to talk revenue… never mind the feels. And we need to talk the entire play-offs series, not just finals.
But upping the caliber of teams, you can take advantage of the uncertainty of outcome hypothesis. Better teams mean better games which, hopefully, would translate to higher attendance and more revenue for the league. This would especially be true for first round series as you wouldn’t have such low ranked teams playing such high ranked teams (i.e. 1st and 8th in a conference). As the top teams would already be through to the finals and the lower teams would be stronger, uncertainty would increase and lead to more cash money.
The only issue with that might be if those teams were in small markets… but I guess that’s an issue anyway so forget I ever said that.
Overall, I guess it makes sense for money reasons (the NBA is a business, afterall) but I doubt competitive balance would be affected as the top teams are making it to the finals, anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess. But I’m willing to bet we won’t be seeing it next season (lots of owners have to agree… and you know how that goes).