Increasing the appeal of the regular season and decreasing the role of tanking is a priority for the NBA. An expanded playoff format could be the answer the NBA is looking for and it would have worked for the New York Knicks this season.
At this point in the season, it is in the best interest of some teams to lose games. The New York Knicks have reached this inevitable and unenviable point in the season. They are well out of frame in the playoff picture and they currently sit in ninth place in terms of lottery position. They are definitely looking to develop the youth and the players and coaching staff are always playing to win, but everyone knows it isn’t a bad thing when the Knicks lose. It’s one more step closer to picking up a possible superstar in the upcoming draft.
This is something the league wants to get rid of, evidenced by their strong response to Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban and his comments about tanking being in his organization’s best interests. How can the NBA stop the widespread tanking phenomenon that is taking place in the bottom third of the league?
Expanding the NBA playoff format would be a start.
According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, there are discussions within NBA circles regarding this possibility. According to Lowe, the most discussion has centered around a format where the seven through 10 seeds would be put into a play-in tournament to decide on the seven and eight seeds in each conference. For clarity, the most likely scenario is described by Lowe:
“The proposal gives the seventh and eighth seeds an edge over teams that finish ninth and 10th — a method of making sure regular-season success means something in the play-in tournament. Teams that finish seventh and eighth get two chances to win one game to clinch a playoff spot, including a guaranteed win-and-get-in home game for each. The ninth and 10th teams need to win two games without a loss, and the 10th seed would need to win two consecutive road games.”
This scenario has flaws and wouldn’t completely solve the problem with tanking. There are a number of nuances to this playoff format mainly centering around lottery positioning, but let’s assume that if implemented, teams would actually want to compete to make the play-in tournament. Let’s look at how this could be successful from a New York Knicks perspective.
Despite the pivot towards development, the youthful Knicks are competing and gaining valuable experience. If the four-team play-in tournament was in place, the Knicks would still be able to keep the hopes of fighting for a playoff spot, albeit a one-game opportunity. This would work in the Knicks’ favor and the league’s favor in a number of ways.
Even with the play-in tournament as the main goal, the Knicks coaching staff would likely still be playing the younger players. This stretch run would be vital for young guys like Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke. As of Monday, they would be three games behind the 10th seeded Charlotte Hornets and each game would be meaningful as they try and chase down the teams ahead in the standings.
Yes, you could argue that this would be unnecessarily manufacturing meaning in games by diluting the playoff format, but that is a much better alternative to games in February being given away because teams are actively tanking. Teams may value the experience gained in these late playoff races. It could help change the mentality across the NBA.
If it would work for any team, it would have certainly worked for the Knicks this season. Going into December 22nd, New York was tied for 5th place in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks were firmly in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference as the calendar turned to 2018. Even following a rough January, the Knicks were within striking distance of sneaking into the playoffs until Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL. Once KP went down, the Knicks playoff hopes received a final blow. The team made it clear all year that the postseason was the goal, but after the devastating injury to their star, they pivoted towards player development with less emphasis on trying to win games.
For a team that clung to playoff hopes long past the time the fanbase gave up, it’s clear that the Knicks would be going all out for that 10th playoff spot. If the Knicks were to make the play-in tournament that experience would be vital for the younger players on the team. A win-or-go-home atmosphere would help to prepare teams to contend in the future.
It may be manufactured, but a change to the playoff format would be good for up-and-coming teams. Not to mention, it could help to curb the NBA’s tanking problem that they have been so desperate to fix. Look no further than this year’s Knicks for a case study in how it could work.