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What the NBA could learn from the AFL

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5th April, 2019

With the start of the NBA playoffs a week away, the long slog of the regular season will come to a close, and we’ll be on the long final stretch to determine a champion. But this system can be better.

This regular season has been a mess, as multiple teams shut down with at least 25 games remaining.

Some were up-and-coming, fun, entertaining squads that were beset by injuries, inconsistency and – most importantly – geography.

Many have called for a fairer playoff system based on a one-to-16 seeding, but that proposal was voted down by Eastern Conference owners, who can claim success by being just mediocre, and Western Conference owners, who hope they can benefit in case the West is ever the inferior conference.

I propose a way to make owners, fans and television producers happier with some radical and some common-sense ideas for the playoff format.

Play-in games
With play-in games – specifically 7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9 – more teams would have a chance to qualify for the playoffs, including the streaky, young teams.

Baseball expanded its playoffs to a play-in wildcard game, and the NCAA basketball tournament did the same, with exciting games in both.

The Nuggets-Wolves game to end the 2018 regular season was praised for being a significant game on the final day of the regular season – a rarity in the NBA.

Make the play-in games cross-conference
In most years, at least one team from one conference – always the Western Conference since 2000 – would make the playoffs on record alone if they were in the other conference.


This year, instead of seeing the Kings and the King, or the Brow and Luka Doncic, we get the Eastern Conference stumblers.

LeBron James Lakers

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Give the bottom playoff teams a right to prove their worthiness for the playoffs. The play-in winners would get reseeded in the relevant conference.

Borrow from the AFL: split the brackets
Although the No.8 Nuggets famously defeated the No.1 seed Supersonics in 1994, most other first-round series the Nuggets played in – often as the No. 8 seed – have ranged from incredibly uninteresting to mildly uninteresting.

This is the case with most first-round series in general because of the chasm in talent in the 1 vs 8 and 2 vs 7 match-ups.

If the NBA borrowed the AFL’s format, the 5-8 teams could play in a best-of-three elimination round. The 1-4 teams could play a round robin, with the higher-seeded team getting the home game.

The top two teams from the round robin rest for a week, while the other two teams play the winners of the 5-8 match-ups.

This second round could be best-of-five. These series would be well contested, and could take as long as the current first round.


In the AFL, the top teams still advance to the preliminary finals and the grand final, and the first-round match-ups are exciting and well contested.

There are several advantages to this system.

Although the playoffs would be an extra round (or two, if the play-in games are considered a round), the number of days for the playoffs could stay the same, the number of nationally televised playoff games would be about the same, and more viewers would tune in to exciting games.

Owners would love this as this gives them more opportunity to make the playoffs – with 20 teams instead of 16 – and still maintain or increase the number of games from which they can make money.

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The cross-conference play-in would slightly address conference imbalance.

There would be more chances for your team to have a successful season, even with a slump or injury, and teams wouldn’t start to tank midway through the season because the top eight is too far off.

Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken out about how the NBA’s ‘championship or bust’ mentality makes for one happy fan base and 29 unhappy ones, so opportunities for success in a modified playoff format would increase happiness among more teams’ fans.

The only downside is that, even though the calendar wouldn’t be affected, the addition of two more playoff rounds may increase fan and player malaise.

However, that’s already the case with an 82-game regular season that stretches from September through to April, and playoffs that drag out until the last half of June.

Also, new formats are confusing at first, so it would take adjusting.

But ice hockey fans understood re-seeding when playoffs were conferences, so NBA fans can and should adjust to a better playoff format.