Why MLB's proposed playoff shakeup is brilliant – and why the NBA should follow its lead

NBA commissioner Adam Silver (left) could learn from his MLB counterpart, Rob Manfred. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver (left) could learn from his MLB counterpart, Rob Manfred. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball wants to expand its playoffs. And, as so often happens when suits threaten traditionalists with change, people aren’t happy. Fans aren’t happy. Players aren’t happy. “Absurd,” pitcher Trevor Bauer said in a scathing tweet directed at commissioner Rob Manfred.

But dig into Manfred’s proposal – which requires players union approval – and you’ll find method to the apparent madness. You’ll find reason that transcends dollar signs.

Under the leaked plan, MLB would expand its postseason from 10 to 14 teams and allow higher seeds to select their wild-card opponents. That last part, which would come to life in a dramatic Sunday night “selection show,” generated buzzy headlines and immediate debate.

But it’s the new seven-team-per-league format that fundamentally changes Major League Baseball. It changes the playoffs. It changes the regular season. It changes the way franchises will be run.

And it’s brilliant. So brilliant that other American sports leagues – namely, the NBA – should adopt versions of it.

The power of incremental incentives

The worry with any playoff expansion, in any sport, to any number of participants, is that bloated playoff fields devalue regular seasons. That’s why the NBA’s 82-game grind often feels tiresome and empty. The inverse is why European soccer leagues, with no playoffs at all, produce weekly excitement.

But MLB’s plan addresses that worry. It doesn’t entirely extinguish it. Talented teams would be able to underperform and still make the cut. There’s a school of thought that such a safety net is bad for the game.

This safety net, however, is a flimsy one. And that’s why the proposed system works.

It introduces incremental incentives. There’s incentive to be the best team in a league, not simply a division winner, because top seeds earn first-round byes.

There’s incentive to win your division, even if you can’t reach that top seed, because doing so earns you three home games in a three-game, first-round series.

If you can’t win your division, there’s incentive to finish with the top record among wild cards, which earns you three first-round home games as well. The alternative is zero.

And of course, there’s incentive to make the playoffs – which, after expansion, would become a realistic goal for a supermajority of the league, even as the season reaches its August-September home stretch.

Because of those incremental incentives, expansion doesn’t render the regular season meaningless. It just spreads meaning far and wide, distributing it throughout the standings, creating new playoff races in new places, all while maintaining the traditional ones. Because no two playoff berths would be equal.

MLB would mirror the NFL

What MLB’s proposal does is create playoff-berth tiers. There’s the top seed, which essentially gets an automatic series win. There are the other division winners, which get three home games and their choice of the lowly wild cards as adversaries. There’s the top wild card, which gets three home games but no choice. And there’s the rest.

Crucially, there’s also a material difference between tiers. Home-field advantage is worth less in MLB than in other major American leagues. In the playoffs, since 2005, hosts have won around 56 percent of games. In a standard seven-game set among even teams, therefore, a better regular-season record is worth about 3.8 percentage points in series win probability.

But in a three-game series? With all three games hosted by the higher seed? The win probability difference is 18 percentage points.

That’s if we consider a hypothetical world of absolute parity — where each team has a 50 percent chance of winning a game against another at a neutral site. In that world, under MLB’s proposed system, here’s what first-round playoff odds would look like:

  • The top seed has a 100 percent chance of advancing

  • A non-top-seed division winner has a 59 percent chance of advancing

  • The top wild card has a 59 percent chance of advancing

  • A normal wild card has a 41 percent chance of advancing

Sprinkle in relative team strength, plus the “pick-your-opponent” scheme, and gaps in win probability widen. Those gaps are absolutely worth striving for.

Baseball’s playoff chase, under the proposed format, would mirror the NFL, where teams fight for:

  • playoff berths

  • division titles, because a division title means a one-off playoff game at home, which is worth roughly five or six points – or, in win probability terms, 15-20 percentage points

  • a top-two seed, which yields a first-round bye

  • the top seed, and home-field advantage throughout

The NFL, whose postseason and regular season are must-watch television, has four playoff-berth tiers. Baseball, if the proposal comes to fruition, would have four, as well.

The NBA, meanwhile, is chugging along with one.

How the NBA should learn from MLB

Among the NBA’s biggest problems is that, structurally, there is very little difference between 73-9 and 41-41. The Milwaukee Bucks may win 70 games this year. Their reward for six months of excellence will be one soft playoff matchup out of four; and one extra home game per round, which makes a 50/50 seven-game series roughly a 54/46 proposition.

That’s somewhat significant, but nowhere near sufficient as an incentive. Which helps explain “load management,” and lower-than-they-should-be TV ratings, and an annual March malaise. NBA nerds will care about whether the Clippers face the Mavericks or Thunder in Round 1. Casual fans don’t because the Clips will almost surely beat either.

A tiered incentive system, therefore, would do wonders. Imagine this year’s Western Conference, new-age-MLB style:

  • The Clippers would have real reason to push LeBron and the Lakers, creating a down-to-the-wire race for the top seed – and a first-round bye – between Los Angeles rivals. There’d be drama nightly.

  • The Jazz, Rockets, Thunder and Mavs would be battling for the No. 4 seed – and an entire series at home. The three who fall short would become heavy first-round underdogs.

  • But the Thunder and Mavs couldn’t afford to slip, either – if the upstart Grizzlies caught them, they’d be out of the playoffs altogether.

  • Let’s say the standings held as they are right now. After Game 82, Doc Rivers would have to go on live TV and pick between Chris Paul, Luka Doncic and James Harden as his first-round playoff foe. And – don’t lie to yourself – you’d watch.

MLB’s proposal, in so many ways, actually suits the NBA more than it suits MLB. The league adores extracurricular narratives and off-court drama, which the selection show would deliver. More importantly, the league desperately needs to incentivize team effort and fan interest from November through mid-April.

Here’s a tweaked version of the MLB plan that would suffice:

An (unrealistic) NBA playoff proposal

  • Shrink the field from 16 to 14 teams, and the first round from seven games to five. Top seed in each conference gets a bye.

  • The No. 2 seed gets all five games at home vs. No. 7*. No. 3 gets four games at home vs. No. 6. No. 4 gets three home games vs. No. 5.

    (*Like in MLB’s plan, No. 2 gets to pick its opponent. No. 3 then picks between the leftover teams.)

  • There’s another selection show ahead of the conference semis. The No. 1 seed gets to pick its opponent. This is essentially reseeding – but based on the preference of the top team.

  • The conference semis and beyond remain seven-game sets. But in the conference semis, the No. 1 seed gets five home games.

  • There’s a third selection show ahead of the conference finals. Conference barriers evaporate, and the remaining team with the best record selects its opponent. This is more or less what the NBA has proposed – except, again, the reseeding is based on the top team’s preference.

The issue here, of course, is that the NBA playoffs will never contract. Doing so, to owners, would be throwing away money. Fortunately, we can craft a similar system via expansion.

A realistic NBA playoff proposal

NBA powerbrokers have already discussed opening their playoff doors to four more contestants. They’d create a “play-in round” among teams 7-10 in each conference. As far as money-driven ideas go, it’s a decent one. Let’s take it a step further.

Expand from 16 to 20. Also expand the play-in round to 12, rather than eight. End the regular season on a Sunday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, in each conference, No. 10 plays at No. 5; No. 9 plays at No. 6; No. 8 plays at No. 7. But it’s not all single elimination ....

  • In 7 vs. 8, winner advances.

  • In 6 vs. 9, 6 advances with a win. But if 9 wins, they play again the following night – 9 has to beat 6 twice on 6’s home floor to advance.

  • Same for 5 vs. 10, except that 10 has to win three days in a row – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – to move on.

You then have a seven-team field in each conference, and you follow the proposal above, selection shows and all, games beginning Saturday as usual. Keep the first round at seven games instead of five if you must. (In that case, No. 2 gets six of the seven at home; No. 3 gets five; No. 4 gets four.) With six concurrent series instead of eight, however, compress the schedule to speed up the round.

The goal, beyond maintaining the excitement and profitability of the playoffs, should be to make each place in the standings significantly more attractive than the one below it. To make 10 more desirable than 11, and 9 more desirable than 10, and 1 more desirable than 2, and everything in between.

MLB has a plan to accomplish that in a meaningful way. The NBA could learn a thing or two.

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