It was Major League Baseball that got the conversation started about expanding playoffs, and the NFL got on board when it included additional wild-card teams in its proposed collective bargaining agreement. At the time, it seemed for all the world like a stupid cash grab that would dilute the special nature of playoff action, but now in the cold light of having no sports at all now?
Eh, it doesn’t seem so bad.
In fact, with Coronavirus putting the current NBA and NHL campaigns on standby, it’s those leagues that have a chance to truly reshape the way North American sports handle their postseasons.
The playoff systems across the leagues already have been diluted to the point of embarrassment. More than half the teams in both basketball and hockey make the field, often resulting in teams with losing records squeezing in. The NBA currently has three such clubs occupying playoff positions, while in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets hit the quarantine period holding onto a playoff spot even though they’ve won only 33 of 70 games — enough of their losses, 15, have come in overtime and shootouts to rack up a higher total of points than the New York Islanders (35-23-10), New York Rangers (37-28-5), and Florida Panthers (35-26-8), all of whom can at least be happy with being over real .500 and not the fugazi “hockey .500” in which losses don’t really count because you got a point for tying in regulation.
Even football and baseball, with their tighter playoff qualifications, haven’t been immune. The NFL has seen the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and 2014 Carolina Panthers win their divisions with losing records, in each case shutting a 10-win team out of the chase for the Super Bowl. Then there are the 2006 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, an 83-win outfit that was the fifth-best team in the National League over the course of six months before putting together 11 wins in 16 October games. Given enough time, and the possibility of a move to four-team divisions whenever MLB expands to 32 teams, and the scenario of a team with a losing record being the biggest winner of all will eventually play out — it already almost did in 1994, when the Texas Rangers led the American League West at 52-62 — fifty-two and sixty-two! — when the players went on strike and the playoffs eventually got canceled.
So, as long as we acknowledge that making the playoffs is not as special as it’s made out to be, and leagues already are moving to make it less so, why not go all in? And all in means just that. Let’s put every single team into a playoff. Imagine it when the all clear is finally given to get back to sports: A brand-spankin’ new round-robin tournament that would welcome back basketball into all of our lives, avoid stretching the 2019-20 season deep into the summer, provide a chance for all 30 teams to have something to play for, and still crown a champion with some connection to the basketball we’ve already seen to this point.
It can be done, and it should be done.
The inspiration is the World Cup, and the NBA’s usually useless divisional setup provides the layout for the Group Stage. Each team plays one game against each of its division rivals, with the twist being that home-court advantage is decided by the regular-season standings. Not that the Bucks should really expect to go anything but 4-0 against the Pacers, Bulls, Pistons, and Cavaliers, but all four of those games being in Milwaukee is a fair bonus for going 53-12 from October to March.
Meanwhile, the previously eliminated Warriors would get a chance to get back in the mix with previously injured Steph Curry on board — and maybe Klay Thompson, depending how long the league is shut down. But Golden State would have to go on the road to face both Los Angeles teams, Sacramento, and Phoenix.
At the end of this “Group Stage,” the top two teams from each division would move on, plus the four best third-place teams as wild cards, to set up a 16-team bracket. There would be ties, but intra-divisional ties could easily be broken by using the head-to-head result in group play, ties for seeding purposes between divisions broken by using regular-season records, and ties to determine wild-card spots broken with one-game playoffs. If the basketball gods are real, we’d see one Thunder-Rockets game in Oklahoma City with a playoff spot on the line, please and thank you.
Down to 16 teams, the playoffs would continue in their familiar fashion.
The plan would be similar for the NHL, just with a seven-game schedule for each team since hockey has eight-team divisions. For the Central, which has only seven teams, the extra game would be decided at the end of group play, with the last-place team left out and the others facing off to finish the stage. Again, once you got to the “Sweet 16” it would be Stanley Cup playoffs as usual.
For baseball, a standard regular season could go through Labor Day weekend, and finishing first would really mean something if you could get all of group play in September at home before starting a 16-team bracket of best-of-sevens to lead to the World Series.
The easiest league to change is the NFL. Scrap the plans for a 17th regular-season game, and instead give everyone a shot in the playoffs, with a week off for everyone after the end of the season, four weeks of tournament play, and then another week off that gets the Super Bowl to Presidents’ Day weekend and finally means that the day after the Super Bowl would indeed be a holiday.
We all love the intensity and drama of the playoffs, and regular seasons are too long and get dull. What’s happening now is a global catastrophe, and there’s nothing positive about it, but the pause in these seasons does provide an opportunity to think about what we want our sports to look like. Expanding and extending the playoffs, the best part of each sport’s year, is an idea that makes sense for the leagues, and out of crisis, there’s an opportunity to make it happen.