As the National Basketball Association (NBA) season winds down, teams are looking ahead to the almost two-month-long grind that is postseason. A total of 16 teams — eight from the Eastern Conference and eight from the Western Conference, and more than half of the league — make it to the playoffs each year. In reality, there are only a handful of teams in the league each year that will seriously contend for the title. The NBA would do well to limit the playoff field to just eight teams total, as it ensures that teams in the playoffs are the best of the best, not just average.
The Atlanta Hawks recently clinched their tenth-straight playoff appearance when the Chicago Bulls lost to the Brooklyn Nets. The significance of the accomplishment? Next to nothing. Clinching a playoff appearance in the NBA is like being average at, well, anything. More than half of the league makes the playoffs, so it means very little unless you can actually back up making the playoffs with conference or NBA championships (see: every team not named the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers in the last two seasons).
Look at Major League Baseball (MLB) or even the National Football League (NFL). The playoff fields in those leagues are 10 and 12, respectively. Teams that make the playoffs in the MLB and NFL are among the best in the league, whereas teams that make the playoffs in the NBA (looking at you, Eastern Conference) can be average at best. Almost every year, a team with a sub-.500 winning percentage will make the playoffs in the eastern conference. The same feat might also occur in the NFL, though not as regularly, but MLB will never have playoff teams with losing records. That said, the NBA needs to adjust their playoff standards so that teams truly have to earn the right to play once the regular season concludes.
Of course, some might argue that an expanded field gives a wider range of teams the opportunity to compete for the championship and, perhaps, pull off an upset similar to those you might see in the recently concluded NCAA national basketball tournament. Yet only a handful of teams have won the NBA championship in the past few years, all of whom were top seeds in the league. Since 1996, only one team seeded lower than third has won the championship. Upsets are unlikely particularly given the fact that teams play seven-game series as opposed to single-elimination games.
The solution is quite simple — reduce the number of playoff teams to four from each conference. Such a change eliminates some of the “lesser” teams and, in theory, increases the competition level so that the Warriors and Cavaliers do not waltz their way to the Finals.
Owen Hill is a senior economics major, Chinese Studies minor from Atlanta, Georgia. He also serves as a sports section editor for the Weekly, and can be reached at [email protected]