Monday, April 13, 2015

NBA Playoff Tiebreakers for the 21st Century

This season has been a ton of fun. That muderous Western Conference that we were all expecting? Yup, it was murder. The following picture is nuts:

Standings from

Just a half game separates 2nd through 6th place (with the Blazers in there because of their division). This inevitably begs a question: What happens if there's a tie?

Like all well-run sports leagues, the NBA has prepared for that:



After the senseless divisional leader bit, the next four tiebreakers on either list have to do with winning % against a sample set of opponents. Raise your hand if you know off the top of your head what winning percentage the Spurs or Rockets have against their own division. This stuff is so complex that it almost obfuscates the real point behind the tiebreaker: determine which team should be awarded for having a better season (a notably difflerent goal than rewarding the better team).

It doesn't have to be that complex. In fact, we can reward both better seasons and better teams with one defining metric. Can you think of it? I'll give you a hint -- it's on the list.

At the very end of both lists reads: "Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents ("point differential")". That's your answer. Separate teams by point differential. The simplicity of the method is its genius. Want to know how many points the Spurs have scored minus points they've allowed? Easy: 513. What about the Rockets? 246. Clippers? 522. Grizz? 258. These numbers are easy for fans to track and understand.

This is where it gets really interesting (or in the words of Bill Simmons, entertaining as hell). The last day of this regular season is Wednesday the 15th. The Spurs play at 7ET that day - the Clips finish the night before. Let's say the Spurs are a win behind, and in the point differential tiebreak scenario they are still 9 points behind, just like today. Not only do the Spurs have to win, they have to win by 10 to get the automatic tiebreaker. They'll know exactly what they need going into the game.

That is the definition of appointment television. No chance I would miss seeing the Spurs kill themselves to win by 10 (or not - it's the Spurs, they win big a lot). Or to see their opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, try equally hard to prevent that from happening. The energy from both teams and fanbases would be excellent, even if only for a game. If the opponent were a lottery team, it would give an otherwise tanking team/fanbase an potential opportunity to directly influence the playoff picture. They can still lose. They just can't lose by 10. If I'm in New Orleans, I get on Stubhub immediately to get tickets to that game.

What if the difference weren't 10? What if it were 20? 30? The Spurs don't care about seeding that much, but maybe the Clips do. Maybe it's for home court, since Portland is basically locked into the 4 seed. Wouldn't you love to watch the Clips go balls to the wall to beat their last opponent (the forlorn Suns) by 30?

If they accomplish that feat, it's perfect fodder for the media the next day since they'll still need to sweat out the final night's games to see if their margin holds. And what about the Suns - what a way to stick it to the Clippers by keeping the game close. You want to come into our house and blow us out!? Game on! Again, the chance to see the Clips try to pull that kind of win is must-see-TV.

This kind of end-of-season craziness would likely only happen once in a blue moon. But it would be cool, it would generate storylines, maybe create some bad blood. More broadly, teams would have incentive to win big down the stretch. Every game in March and April would become a little more important for closey bunched teams because they know they have to win by enough to keep their differential high. Maybe you'll see less strategic "resting." Anything to make the last third of the season more exciting.

I can already see the inevitable response - that by encouraging teams to blow others out, we make a mockery of the game. My answer is simple: if you don't want to get blown out by the Clippers, play better basketball! Figure it out! Foul DeAndre Jordan, get in Blake's head, make it a playoff atmosphere! If you know that they're going to come into your house and try to embarass you, protect your house. And if they expend a bunch of physical and emotional energy and win by 30, they deserve it. I fail to see how this doesn't make games more interesting.

Commissioner Silver - let's make this happen. It makes the NBA more exciting. It's better for basketball. Let's make playoff tiebreakers Entertaining as Hell!

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