Why Not Let the Top Seeds Pick Their Opponents?:

The NBA playoffs start tomorrow. The Minnesota Timberwolves are the 1st seed in the Western Conference – meaning that they play the 8th seeded Denver Nuggets. If the Timberwolves had the choice, they might well prefer to play the 7th seeded Houston Rockets, who slumped badly at the end of the season and are playing the worst basketball of any of the teams from the West. Why shouldn’t the Timberwolves have that choice?

Playoff seedings are determined by regular season records. If (as in the NBA) 8 teams go to the playoffs from each conference, the team with the best record will play the team with the 8th best, the 2nd will play the 7th, and so on. The idea is to reward the teams with the best records by pitting them against the weakest opponents. But a better – and more interesting – system would allow the top seeds to choose their opponents.

My proposal is straightforward. At the end of the last game of a given round of the playoffs (or, for the first round, the last game of the regular season), the first seed would choose which team in the bottom half of the seedings it wanted to play. The second seed would then choose among the remaining teams, and so on. This need not delay anyone’s travel plans; the selection could proceed in order (like a draft), with each team having a few minutes to make its selection. The only difference between my approach and the current one is that the best teams would have some ability to choose their opponents.

Why make this change? It truly rewards the teams with the best records, and it avoids the problem of a top team having the bad luck to be pitted against another top team while teams with fewer wins have weaker opponents. Maybe the 7th seed slumped at the end of the season or has just suffered injuries, whereas the 8th seed ended the season strongly and would have had a better record if its star had not been hurt in the beginning of the season.

My proposal would make for better matchups. Leagues like the best teams to meet deep into the playoffs, and this makes it more likely that that will happen – because the team with the best record will avoid playing the stronger teams until late in the playoffs.

It should also greatly increase fan interest. Fans of the choosing teams can debate who their team should opt to play in a given round of the playoffs. And it would create a new element for the chosen teams and their fans. If the 1st seed decided to play the 7th seed rather than the 8th, the 7th could use the choice as a motivating tool (“They chose to play us because they thought we were weak. Let’s show them.”) and the 8th seed could boast that the best team was afraid to play them. And if the 8th seed met the 1st seed later in the playoffs, the story line would be irresistible (“The 1st seed must now play the team it sought to avoid.”)

Who would oppose this change? There is only one group of people who have anything to lose from this system – the coaches. Woe to the coach who chooses to play a higher-seeded team and then loses. But that woe translates into fan interest – “Can you believe he chose to play Team Y when he could have played Team Z?” – and a new set of story lines. My system might even induce fans to watch a blowout until the end (“As soon as the game is over, the coach will choose his next opponent”).

Having options makes sense in other areas of life. Why not this one?

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