The Change That Could Make the NBA Playoffs Watchable

The postseason is lagging in action and viewership. A skunk rule could be the solution.

The current best-of-seven game format extends far too many first-round series that are foregone conclusions. (Jeff Swinger / USA Today / Reuters)

The NBA postseason needs to be shorter. This year’s playoffs started on April 13 and won’t end until sometime in June. Last year’s playoffs similarly lasted 55 days. That’s longer than NCAA basketball’s entire March Madness tournament, which runs for about three weeks. And it’s roughly as long as the NFL and MLB playoffs combined.

Historically, the NBA playoffs have been one of the most entertaining postseasons in all of sports, where rivalries are born and great players become legends. This year’s games, for instance, have given fans series-ending buzzer beaters, such as the one from the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard in the first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and another from the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, who hit an improbable shot in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. But for every riveting series, there’s another one that’s tainted by the fatigue and injuries that come from athletes playing every 48 hours from October through April in the regular season, and then ratcheting up the intensity for two more months in the playoffs.

The problem starts with the very first playoffs round. The current best-of-seven game format extends far too many first-round series that are foregone conclusions, resulting in a slog of games that are mismatched and uninteresting to watch. On April 20, for instance, the Houston Rockets won Game 3 of their matchup with the Utah Jazz, making the series 3–0. However, the Jazz won the next game, avoiding a four-game sweep. As a result, the Rockets didn’t close the series until April 24, which meant an extra four days of practicing and playing that Houston could have spent resting for their second-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors. It’s important to note here that it’s virtually impossible for teams to come back from 3–0 deficits in any round, in any sport. It’s happened only four times in the National Hockey League, once in Major League Baseball, and never in the NBA. So a series continuing after the third straight win is basically a formality.

The ratings support the idea that there is fatigue around the first round of the playoffs. Through the first two weeks of the 2019 postseason, the numbers were down by 18 percent. Of course, part of the reason for the decline is the nonappearance of the sport’s biggest star, LeBron James, whose Lakers didn’t make the playoffs, causing him to be absent from the postseason lineup for the first time in more than a decade. But the ratings did bounce back in the second round, as ESPN boasted its highest second-round TV ratings since 2012, indicating that fans are still compelled to tune in to more competitive matchups.

The solution may lie in changing the playoff format itself. Under what’s called a “skunk rule,” higher seeds automatically move on to the second round if they win the first three games of the first round. In this scenario, if a lower-seed team wins any of a series’ first three games, then the series will be a traditional seven-game series. The skunk rule would potentially make Game 3 in the first round an elimination game, upping the drama early in a series.

Up until 2003, the NBA’s first round was a best-of-five series. The reason for the change to seven was twofold: More games equals more money for the league. And extending the first round lowered the chance that a better team would get eliminated in the first round, since five-game series were more competitive than their seven-game replacements. In a five-game series, Games 3 through 5 are must-win games. According to a 2010 study by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, the favored team had a 76.56 percent chance of winning a five-game series, as opposed to an 81.25 percent chance of winning a seven-game series.

Now, with the seven-game format, higher-seed teams have to win two home games and two road games in a row to sweep a series—a task that’s far more difficult based on how much harder it is to win on the road (having home-court advantage boosts a team’s chances of winning by as much as 14 percent in the playoffs). What’s more, the NBA has recently seen several stars go down to injury at crucial moments in the playoffs—Chris Paul in last year’s Conference Finals, Leonard in the 2017 Conference Finals, Steph Curry in 2016, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in 2015, and so on. The league has lucked out by not having an entire NBA Finals devastated by a team’s top star being hurt, but it’s playing with fire by piling on grueling minutes. With a skunk rule, top teams that win the first three games and sweep the series could rest up for the remainder of the run, lessening the chance of devastating late-playoffs injuries.

If the league wants to preserve player health and keep fans engaged and happy, then it needs to explore some outside-the-box solutions. There are opportunities to shorten the length of the playoffs—and they start with the first round. By June, nobody will miss those games anyway.