Changing the Playoff Format

If there’s one thing that stuck out in my mind when making my first round picks for ESPN’s Geek Smackdown, it’s that the East largely consisted of lopsided battles while the West had a couple of really close series. All 8 Western teams finished with a winning percentage of .600 or higher, while only 3 Eastern teams bettered that mark for the regular season. Consequently a couple of Western conference series are of second round quality such as Houston/Utah and San Antonio/Phoenix. And it doesn’t seem fair that a team like Golden State which won 48 games in the more difficult West is watching the playoffs from home while 5 Eastern teams that won fewer games are still playing.

So I wondered what would happen if the NBA discarded the East/West distinction and seeded teams solely based on winning percentage? This year’s playoffs would look like this:

1. Boston vs 8. Philly/Portland
4. Phoenix vs. 5. Orlando

3. San Antonio vs. 6. Golden State
2. New Orleans vs. 7. Cleveland

1. Detroit vs. 8. Toronto
4. Utah vs. 5. Dallas

3. Houston vs. 6. Denver
2. L.A. Lakers vs. 7 Washington

The first thing to notice is the absence of the weaker Eastern teams. Namely Atlanta replaced by Golden State, and Philly needing to beat Portland in a “play-in” game to reconcile a tie for the league’s 16th best record.

In this format, the best first round matchups become the Suns vs. Magic and the Hornets vs. Cavs. Both seem odd when thinking in terms of today’s NBA playoff format, as they are East-West battles. However the series have an intrigue of their own. Orlando’s Dwight Howard, who is currently putting up Russell-esque rebounding numbers against Toronto, would be competing against two huge centers in Shaq and Amare. Meanwhile LeBron wouldn’t have a home court first round matchup as a reward for winning a mediocre 45 games. Instead he would face one of the toughest Western teams in New Orleans.

Looking past the first round yields some better contests than the current format. In this year’s playoffs, the Celtics won’t face a serious challenge until the third round (sorry Cleveland fans). But in my format, they’ll face either Phoenix or Orlando in the second round, and the winner of the Spurs/Hornets in the third round. Meanwhile the “Chamberlain” bracket would be even more competitive, with the Pistons, Jazz, Rockets, and Lakers battling to emerge to the Finals.

Another advantage of this playoff format is that entire conferences wouldn’t be aiming to beat a single team. For a few years, teams in the West sought only to find a way to defeat the Lakers or Spurs. However in a format where teams wouldn’t be assured of going through a certain team to get to the playoffs they can risk finding a different method to win games. Western teams might not have had to waste roster spots to stock their bench with bigmen to counter Duncan or Shaq, and instead become more well rounded to account for any opponent strength.

Additionally teams for the weaker conference wouldn’t be as complacent. This year Eastern conference teams could aim low and still reap the monetary rewards of a couple of playoff home games. Maybe one contributing factor to the East’s recent futility has been forcing 8 teams to go to the playoffs. A sub .500 team will be better off the next year by going to the lottery, instead of the playoffs. And competing against stronger Western teams might force GMs make better moves to improve their teams for a playoff run.

Ultimately this system would correct the flaws of the current system of allowing for bad teams to make the playoffs. Combined with a shuffling of the league’s top teams a non-conference playoff format would make a more balanced playoffs.

Thomas Told to Stay Away

According to Fox Sports, Isiah Thomas has been “barred from having any contact with the team.” As I said earlier, even if Thomas stayed on the payroll he would have no ability to undermine the current leadership. This story seems to validate that thought.

If anyone from MSG is reading this, I’d like to suggest extending Isiah’s ban to the following:

  • Selecting any Knick for his Fantasy Basketball team
  • Playing NBA Live as the Knicks
  • Wearing blue or orange
  • Playing knick knack paddywack
  • Speaking to any Knick fans
  • Eating anything with the ingredient ‘curry’
  • Contacting anyone with the last name Sanders or Browne
  • Setting foot on any numbered street or avenue
  • Posting on any Knick-related web sites under a pseudonym
  • Buying Marbury’s sneakers
  • Contacting any possible future Knicks
  • 2008 Playoffs: Game Ones

    OK so the Spurs and Suns go double OT, the Jazz beat the hottest team in the West, and the Sixers steal game 1 from Detroit. I really only caught the Houston/Utah game on tv, and it seemed that the Rockets dug themselves a big hole and spent their energy trying to catch up. My feeling of the game was that Utah dominated the glass, but the boxscore shows Houston to have won the aggregate offensive rebound war: 18 to 13. However the Jazz shot better than 50%, while Houston didn’t crack 40%, so when you look at rebounding percentage it was actually pretty even (HOU: 39%, UTA: 36%). This is a series where the #2 offense meets the #2 defense, and in each game you expect something to break.

    Looking at the boxscore for Pistons loss, it seems that Philadelphia shot slightly better, but all the four factors were pretty close. Detroit had one extra rebound, one less turnover, and one less free throw made. For those that are hoping Philly/Detroit will be this year’s Golden State/Dallas it would have been better if the Sixers won more handily. In a 7 game series, the underdog needs to do better than just break even.

    As for the Spurs/Suns well this should be a good series throughout. Half of me wants the Suns to lose because I think the Shaq trade was a poor decision. Half of me wants the Spurs to lose so I get a more exciting round 2 series between Phoenix & New Orleans.

    Coach of the Year Needs a Do Over

    Coach of the Year is my least favorite NBA award. I tend not to get terribly upset by MVP balloting, as most of the time the choice is among numerous deserving candidates. Although I am firmly in the camp that believes MVP awards by definition should go to the “Most Outstanding Player”, I cannot begrudge sports fans their impulse to “award” it to the individual they deem most important to a team’s accomplishments. In fact, the back-and-forth about ‘what is value?’ and ‘who is more important to his team?’ is actually what makes the MVP race interesting.

    By sharp contrast, Coach of the Year is about as interesting as an hour-long lecture on channels of distribution. This is unfortunate because the hard core NBA fan appreciates coaching (and if you’ve read this far in a blog entry that has “Coach of the Year” in the title you’re hard core). They even talk about coaching, just not in conjunction with the COY award. As Martin Johnson points out in today’s NY Sun, the range of likely winners is so narrow and so similar it’s hardly worth any discussing. The formula is easy enough to write out. COY = most dramatic one-season improvement, particularly if the team makes the playoffs. Although the winner is not easy to predict, the non-winners are. Coaches that win consistently virtually never win the award.

    This should sound familiar. In season 1 Team A suffers key injuries and loses 10+ wins off the previous season’s total. In season 2 the team gets healthy, adds a lottery pick, and then sees a 10-12 game improvement to 50 wins. Voila! You have a strong COY candidate. Over the same two seasons Team B’s performance holds fairly steady through injuries and growing pains, improving from 45 to 48 wins. Now I don’t know which coach is better, but I do know that Team B’s coach is practically a lock to NOT get strong consideration for COY. So in effect, the process is biased against consistent high performance and in favor of factors that have little to do with coaching. The story is always the same, which seems silly to me. It ensures that no one will care about the award because the best coaches are often not even part of the conversation. It’s one thing for the good-but-never-great player to be shut out of an MVP race. Outstanding play really ought to be measured in short time intervals, but outstanding coaching can really only be seen over time because so many things that impact team performance are outside the coach’s control.

    If I were in charge of NBA awards I would move COY from an annual award to a three-year award. (The trophy is already named for Red Auerbach, so the league wouldn’t need to do much other than award it tri-annually instead of annually.) One season simply is not enough time to say much about a coach’s performance. The effects of coaching are generally thought to be quite small and subject to lots of random noise (e.g., injuries, scheduling, strength of competition, etc.). One way of filtering out at least some of the noise is to look at a larger window of time.

    Of course three years is an arbitrary window. (Why not five years? Or ten?) But three years is probably close to the typical coaching tenure, and is similar to the window in which coaches are hired and evaluated. I would also make the criteria for winning the Red Auerbach award explicit but open to interpretation. That’s what makes the MVP races so interesting. Different notions of what constitutes value produces candidates who bring different features to the table. Consider how Steve Nash completely changed the MVP profile.

    Coaches under consideration for the award should be able to demonstrate:

    1. An overall winning record as coach within the three season window; playoff performance may be considered but is not necessary to be eligible. (To the extent possible I want to avoid awarding simple regression to the mean. I want to see some consistency.)

    2. Player development;apart from simply winning games players should generally improve under a coach.

    3. Other considerations consistent with quality coaching; may include but are not limited to strategic or technical innovations, service to the league (e.g., on rules committees), and acting as an ambassador for the game of basketball.

    Ding Dong! Isiah Thomas Fired as Knicks Coach!

    Reports in are saying that Isiah Thomas has been fired as coach of the Knicks. Thomas seems to be staying with the organization as an assistant to Walsh.

    Dolan showed a good understanding of the New York press by making the decision public on Friday at 5pm. Most people are either on their way home to their family or having happy hour drinks at their local pub with the music pumping. By Monday morning no one is going to remember that Isiah Thomas was fired. The mere mention of Thomas’ name draws laughs and criticisms, and this was a good way to minimize the number of people that are going to sit around the water cooler and bad mouth the organization.

    But the timing is also perfect in another way. It’s early enough that the Knicks shouldn’t lose out on any interested coaches. If they waited longer, one of the other NBA teams looking for a coach might snap up a potential candidate.

    Finally I know some Knick fans are unhappy that Thomas is staying with the organization in any capacity. But I think his four and a half years of futility makes his presence innocuous. Dolan knows he can’t bring rehire him as president or coach, because Isiah Thomas has become a joke within a 100 miles of MSG. Thomas is still around because Dolan has him under contract for a few more years. For once Dolan will make someone earn the lengthy contract he handed out, instead of buying the person out.