NBA Group Stage Idea is Fun, But Has Flaws

Ryan Phillips
Adam Silver at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game press conference
Adam Silver at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game press conference / Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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The NBA is considering using a World Cup-style group stage in place of the traditional first round of the playoffs. That idea has some people very excited. While I have to admit the idea is fun, it also carries with it some serious flaws, including the erosion of the regular season's importance.

The idea for the group stage plan is simple: the NBA would admit 20 teams to the postseason and each would be placed in one of four groups. So the top 16 top teams would be admitted, along with the four teams with the next-best records. The NBA would then likely rank the teams into tiers based on record, and match them up, giving the top teams the most favorable groups. Or the teams could be drawn randomly with one team from each tier winding up in each group to attempt to achieve competitive balance.

The teams would then likely play a round-robin within their group, possibly playing every team twice. The teams with the best two records would then advance out of the round into a knockout stage, where we assume the playoff procedure would revert to normal with eight teams left to play best-of-seven series.

Obviously the main issue with this proposal is how it would lessen the importance of winning the top seed in each conference in the future. Yes, doing so in this group stage format would earn a team a spot in the top tier, but there would be no real discernible difference among any of the top four teams. One of the main incentives for NBA teams to get the top seed and home-court advantage is the privilege of facing the conference's worst playoff team in the first round. That usually amounts to a walkover win for the top seed, though not always.

Once a team secured a spot in the top-tier, there would be no incentive for its best players to even take the court. Load management could become even more common than it is now.

Additionally, I do find the NBA's current playoff series format fascinating. Watching teams attempt to figure each other out over the course of a best-of-seven series is fascinating. The individual duels alone are worth the price of admission. A group stage format would rob us of those chess matches.

The group stage idea isn't a bad one for the weird playoffs that are almost certainly coming in 2020. But going to that format permanently could fundamentally alter the way teams approach the regular season.

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