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A group stage-style format for the 2020 NBA Playoffs would be best for fans

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The playoff-format decision should not be made to appease franchises and millionaire executives, but based upon what’s most appealing to fans.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After initially reporting on the different options the NBA has been considering for its return to play, and then discussing said options with Chris Vernon on The Mismatch, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported on the results of the survey sent out to teams and executives by the league on May 28.

What came back was just over half of the league’s general managers voting in favor of reseeding the playoffs 1-16 while disregarding conference alignment. In terms of playoff formats beyond that, 75 percent of the general managers voted in favor of a regular play-in tournament, while only 25 percent supported KOC’s favorite option — the World Cup-style group stage.

To be fair, this is still not an end-all, be-all type of vote, as KOC mentioned that some executives in the league believe that Adam Silver just wanted to observe the general thinking around the league, and that ultimately what will happen is whatever he alone decides.

Still, I can’t help but be disappointed that there wasn’t more backing behind the 20-team group stage idea. For those who don’t know, this idea would have separated the top 20 teams into five tiers of four. Then, one team from each tier would be randomly selected to be in a group, where they would play each opponent in their group twice, and the top two performing teams from each group would advance to the final eight of the playoffs. The tiers would look like this:

Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers

Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat

Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, Sixers

Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic

Tier 5: Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

I understand the arguments that will be made by those teams in the top tier. This format significantly increases their chance of getting knocked out prematurely, as just one or two slip-ups against bottom-tier teams could put them out of commission, when usually all they would have to do is annihilate an overwhelmed 8-seed for a spot in the conference semifinals. The outrage we’d see in Milwaukee should the Bucks get the unlucky draw of Celtics, Rockets, Mavericks and Blazers, rather than being gifted an easy sweep of the Magic, might be unprecedented in NBA history.

Of course, there are some loopholes around that, such as allowing the top teams to choose who would be in their group from each tier via a snake-style draft (which we would all watch for an hour straight if it were made into a live TV event), or making it so that at least one bottom team from the other four tiers has to be in a group with each top seed.

But, in my view, all of this worrying and pandering to high brow teams is getting away from what the true purpose of the NBA. It’s not some religious institution or cultural tradition that serves a higher purpose that cannot be changed just because we feel like it.

No, the NBA above all else is an entertainment product for the public. As much as we all love it, it’s not a necessity. Our lives would be more boring without it, but they could still continue if basketball ceased to exist.

The NBA has understood this better than any other of the major four leagues throughout its relatively short existence. Back in the early days, games were being ruined by foul-heavy stalling tactics, most famously resulting in the Rochester Royals beating George Mikan’s Lakers, 19-18. At one point, the league scoring average dropped to a miserable 79.5 points per game. In response, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals (who would later become the Philadelphia 76ers) Danny Biasone created the 24-second shot clock. In order to bring the excitement of a “home run” to basketball, the NBA adopted the ABA’s (originally the ABL’s) 3-point line in 1980. After suffering through the unbearable 2004 Eastern Conference Finals between the Pacers and Pistons, the league outlawed hand checking in order to clean up the game and increase the pace of play.

All of those changes were made for the good of the league, no matter what the old man on the couch will tell you. A sports league isn’t supposed to be a centuries-old art form that must remain pure. It’s meant to be a fun break from the stress of everyday life, and if there’s something that can increase that enjoyment, then it ought to be pursued.

Just imagine — 80 basketball games in three weeks between the league’s 20 best teams jam-packed in the middle of July. It would provide the urgency and unpredictable nature of March Madness with the actual World Cup format that people love so much. Some might counter that the NBA should discourage random, undeserving champs. I’d say that the best teams should toughen up and just accept that if they really are the league’s best, they can go out there and handle slightly tougher competition.

Just take Germany in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Were they one of the best 16 teams in the world? Absolutely. Did anyone feel bad for them after they squandered their chance with a loss to an inferior South Korea team? Not at all! The opportunity to advance was given to them, and they didn’t capitalize. Too bad.

Now, I will accept health-based arguments against said group format. If bringing back 16 teams instead of 20 helps prevent the spread of the virus, or if the increased danger of having the teams play more games in the first round then they normally would is too great, then sure, the NBA should go ahead and do the playoffs in a way that provides greater safety. However, I have to think this can’t be the case considering that the league had previously been discussing bringing back all 30 teams or having a play-in tournament with as many as 24 teams invited back.

And if the owners truly need another explanation as to why they should buck up and go through with the group stage, it’s this — money. As KOC has mentioned on several occasions, the average number of games played in the first round of the NBA playoffs since the switch was made to a best-of-seven format is 44, or 5.5 games per series. The group stage would guarantee 80 games, almost double the typical first round, and perhaps making up for some of that lost at-gate revenue. Not to mention, if local television stations were allowed to broadcast these games, just about every team involved should hit that 70-game bar needed to accrue the full benefits of the TV contracts.

I’m as big of a basketball nerd as there is. I willingly missed out on parties and weekend excursions this past year at college to watch a Nuggets-Pacers game or to rewatch the fourth quarter of a Sixers game against the Knicks. Whatever the NBA puts on my screen in July, I’ll be watching. The same can’t be said for the majority of casual fans. The Bucks sweeping the Magic won’t glue them to their TVs, but maybe a wacky and chaotic group stage will.