It didn’t take long before the thrill of the NBA playoffs gave way to a giant waiting game. Seven of eight initial playoff matchups were either officially over or effectively decided after the first week of the first round. Now, as everyone passes the time while the rest of this round runs its course, I’ve seen a few different people float familiar ideas to change the playoff format. Some of these reform ideas are good (return to a best-of-5 format in the first round), while others, as ever, are incredibly stupid.
No matter how boring or predictable this year’s first round becomes, never let anyone tell you the NBA needs to abandon the conference format and re-seed the NBA playoffs. Every year these people come out of the woodwork to tell us that there’s a better way to decide an NBA champion. “The West is vastly superior,” they tell you. “It’s been that way for 20 years. The people deserve a meritocracy–a bracket that will put the best teams on the biggest stages. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and pretending the Nets are good. We need to fix the system by lighting a match and building a better world.”
I’ll admit: some of those arguments are compelling. But the second–round matchups in this year’s playoffs are here to offer a perfect rebuttal.
Forget Pistons-Bucks or Rockets-Jazz; look at the madness coming this weekend. We’ve got Warriors-Rockets, Bucks-Celtics, Sixers-Raptors (probably), and a wild card semifinal in the West that will feature two flawed teams ready to empty the chamber on one another. I love each and every one of these matchups, including that last one, which doesn’t even have teams yet (it will be Nuggets/Spurs vs. Thunder/Blazers).
Warriors-Rockets is at the top of the billing for obvious reasons. We’re getting a rematch of the best series anyone saw last year, an opportunity for the Warriors to vaporize a team that they probably don’t respect as much as everyone else, and an opportunity for James Harden to shock the world and stake his claim as the best player in the NBA. It’s going to be wonderful.
Bucks-Celtics could very well be the best series of the playoffs. Milwaukee is looking invincible at the moment, but the Celtics are an ideal foil. They have shooters who can space the floor and take advantage of any weakness in the Bucks defense (Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez). They have Al Horford and Aron Baynes to (maybe) keep Giannis under 40 PPG. And Kyrie Irving is a closer the likes of which Milwaukee may not be able to match. The Bucks are favored and they should be. But to actually win, they’ll need either a superhuman Giannis performance, a huge series from a largely unproven supporting cast, or maybe both.
Raptors-Sixers is going to be chaos. Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series, but the Sixers can counter with firepower all over the floor. Joel Embiid will have to be healthy for Philly to have a chance, but if he’s out there, every game should be close. Can Kyle Lowry punish Philly’s mediocre perimeter D? Can Kawhi ruin Ben Simmons on the other end? How much will Philly’s depth hurt them? How will Toronto’s depth help? If the Sixers can get a win here, it wouldn’t necessarily validate some of this season’s more impulsive moves, but it might help push Kawhi out the door and eliminate a rival for the next four to five years.
Then there’s the Western Conference wild card. Almost any permutation of that matchup is cool with me. Nuggets-Blazers would feature blinding levels of offense, Spurs-Blazers would be a wonderful clash of style, and if the Thunder somehow rise from the dead to meet either of those teams, the resurrection of Paul George and Russell Westbrook will be the craziest story of the playoffs. Each of these pairings would be a toss-up with close to even odds, and every game would be its own adventure.
Now, back to the big picture and the reform debate. I should add a few disclaimers. First, some of my best friends are reseeding advocates, so I don’t mean to cast aspersions on anyone who’s out here brainstorming ways to make basketball better. Second, if we’re speaking in strictly literal terms, a reseeded version of this year’s playoffs may have yielded exactly the same second round we have now. Of course, that counter only goes so far; had a game or two gone differently toward the end of the regular season, the Rockets and Warriors could be on opposite sides of a hypothetical reseeded bracket, the Bucks could be getting set for a second round matchup with someone like the Utah Jazz, and the Raptors could be headed toward a matchup with the Blazers or Nuggets. Who would that scenario really serve? What’s the point of a meritocracy if everyone is just disoriented and a little bit frustrated?
The most popular counter-arguments to reseeding proposals generally center on logistics. Teams would have to travel more, the regular season schedule would have to be balanced between the East and West, and East owners would never ratify a reform proposal. All of these concerns are well-founded, but they ignore the most basic problem: even if any of this could work, it still wouldn’t be any better.
The benefits of reseeding are overstated. Meritocracy or not, any field with 16 teams is always going to come with a few duds. Whatever drama we gain in one place we’d be losing in another. Maybe we could have had Rockets-Warriors in last year’s Finals, for instance, but we’d have sacrificed a historic LeBron James run and would have had to pretend to get excited about a Raptors-Warriors semifinal, an experience that would have been shameful for all of us.
More importantly (and more relevant to the coming second round), continuity is its own virtue when it comes to entertainment. The Bucks and Celtics have been eyeing each other all year long, knowing that this matchup was coming eventually. Whatever happens over the next two weeks, neither team is going to disappear over the next several seasons. Bucks-Celtics has a chance to be one of the best rivalries in basketball. That’s also what makes this whole East field great; the crown is up for grabs right now, and three of these teams enter the next month knowing they could be battling each other for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, all three of them are hoping to beat Toronto so badly that Kawhi goes to the West.
As for Houston and Golden State, this will be the fourth time in five years these teams have met in the playoffs. And while the Warriors are obviously overwhelming favorites (again), that only means a Harden breakthrough would be that much more monumental. Conversely, if Golden State rolls, that becomes its own message about exactly how far away everyone else really is. Then, if Durant leaves this summer and Golden State becomes mortal again, we spend all of next season wondering whether Harden can finally conquer Steph Curry once the playoffs begin. Or maybe Steph is the LeBron of the West, haunting an entire decade of challengers.
These are the conversations that make the playoffs great and addictive, regardless of what’s happening in any given series. The playoffs are about tracing players and teams season after season, watching how each story evolves as the years pass. The more those stories intersect, the more dramatic it all becomes. It’s why conferences are important, and it’s why we can never let the reseeding advocates win. Abandoning conferences would cut these annual playoff intersections in half and leave us just as likely to be watching Raptors-Rockets as Rockets-Warriors. Nobody wants to live in that world, and thankfully, we don’t have to.
It’s time for the second round, and it’s time for all-out war in both conferences. The NBA playoffs will never be perfect, but these next few weeks might be.