Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The NBA's Playoff Problem

Last Friday, the Dallas Mavericks were 38-42 and sat in the 11th spot in the NBA’s Western Conference with two games to play, both at home against comparable or worse teams. They were a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had one game left against the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the stronger teams in the league. The Mavericks didn’t control their own destiny -- they needed help from the Grizzlies to grab that tenth and final playoff berth -- but they could win their final two games and give themselves a chance.

This wasn’t a tanking team that had gotten lucky to be in this spot. The Mavericks came into the 2022-23 season trying to win and made a huge deadline deal for Nets star Kyrie Irving. Things hadn’t worked out -- the Mavs went 8-12 when Irving played, shocking zero Nets fans -- but with a couple of days left in the season, they still had a shot to make the tournament.

On Friday, the Mavs benched Irving, along with three more of their top rotation players, for that penultimate contest against the Bulls. In addition, they played superstar Luka Doncic for just one quarter. The Mavs lost the game 115-112 and were eliminated from playoff contention. By being eliminated, the Mavericks increased the likelihood that they will keep their 2023 first-round pick, which they have to give to the Knicks to complete an earlier trade unless it falls in the top ten. (Losing to the Bulls, who also entered the game 38-42, was an added benefit in this process.)

The Mavericks, a professional basketball franchise that charges money for tickets, and that held a reasonable chance at a playoff berth with two games to go, threw away that chance to protect a draft pick.

What are we even doing here? The NBA, which invented tanking and has spent 40 years trying to repair the damage, now has a team quitting not in November, but in April, expressly preferring to miss the playoffs rather than make them. This isn’t tanking; this is something far worse.

What are playoffs, anyway? Why do we have these bloated, months-long tournaments? To make money, for one. Teams can sell playoff tickets at higher prices, and television networks pay top dollar for the excitement of best-of series. To determine a champion, for two. American audiences have been raised on this model, where the regular season cuts out maybe 60% of the league, maybe less, and then you get to the important games. You couldn’t sell the European model, with a round-robin and no playoffs, over here.

Playoffs sell the idea that anyone can win a championship if they can just get in the door. We just watched an NCAA tournament won by a #4 seed, with a #9 seed nearly playing for the title. Last year’s Phillies were the #11 seed in the MLB playoffs and got to within two wins of a championship. In 2019, the Nationals went from the #9 spot (of ten teams) to winning the World Series. In 2014, two wild-card teams played in the World Series. Take 2020 with a grain of salt, but over in the NFL, the Buccaneers won that season's Super Bowl from the #9 (of 14) seed. The Stanley Cup is regularly won by teams seeded sixth and below in their conference.

The NBA? The NBA’s lowest-seeded playoff teams are just wasting everyone’s time. NBA #7 and #8 seeds -- we’ll call the surviving play-in teams by those numbers for today’s purposes -- have not won a playoff series since 2012. That win happened when Bulls superstar Derrick Rose blew out his knee in the first game of the first round, allowing the #8 seed Sixers to advance. Since then, in nine non-bubble tournaments, the #7 and #8 seeds are 0-36. The bottom seeds in the MLB and NFL playoffs have won championships in the last four years. The bottom seeds in the NBA playoffs haven’t won a series since 2012. At the game level, bottom seeds are 46-160 (.223). A bottom NBA seed is less likely to win a game than a bottom MLB seed is likely to win a series.

Just getting into the playoffs has a lot of value in MLB and in the NHL. It has some, though less, value in the NFL. (Those 2020 Bucs are the only NFL wild-card team to play in the Super Bowl since 2010.) In the NBA, just getting into the playoffs is less valuable than protecting the tenth pick in the draft.

The NBA’s problem isn’t what the Mavericks did. The NBA’s problem is that what the Mavericks did is right. In the NBA, just missing the playoffs has more value than just making them does. It’s a league-level issue that the Mavericks, on Friday, shone a huge spotlight on.