Will end-of-season excitement spur postseason format change?

Commissioner Adam Silver address several issues following Board of Governors meeting

NEW YORK – The fluke of what turned into an unplanned but highly watchable “play-in game” Wednesday night, with Minnesota and Denver pitted in a win-or-go-fishing challenge to crack the NBA’s field of 16 postseason teams, generated discussion at the Board of Governors meeting this week.

Might the league add the concept to its playoff format, formalizing a one-and-done round the way major league baseball did in 2012 with the addition of its wild-card games?

“It continued interest,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at a news conference Friday evening. “There have been proposals that the league has been looking at over the last several weeks.”

Silver said the idea has been raised before with the league’s Competition Committee and discussed at a previous Board of Governors meeting. He said he expects it will come up again when the franchise representatives meet again in July in Las Vegas.

A play-in round of short series or single-game elimination has been rattling around the NHL for a while, generating support from some of hockey’s general managers.

But the NBA, like the NHL, already qualifies more than half its teams for the playoffs. Baseball, even with the added layer of wild-card games, still has only 10 out of 30 teams involved in postseason play. There also is a feeling among some MLB critics that a single game at the end of the 162-game regular season diminishes the accomplishment of the three division winners in the National and American Leagues.

What played out between the Timberwolves and the Nuggets was organic, the result of the two Northwest Division teams tying with 46-35 records through their first 81 games. They just happened to be scheduled to meet in the season finale for both clubs, and the overtime thriller – with Minnesota ending the league’s longest-active playoff drought (2004) by winning, 112-106 – was a highlight on a night that already offered the drama of first-round matchups being determined on the fly.

Whether orchestrating an annual event pitting, say, the eighth- and ninth-place teams in each conference and matching the enthusiasm and TV audience of Wolves-Nuggets would be in question. But Silver sounded game.

“The answer is ‘yes’ for me,” the commissioner said. “It was an incredibly exciting game and it does open up those possibilities that we could do something more formalized, but certainly a play-in type of format.”

Being on the brink of the 2018 playoffs put a couple other topics in play both at the Governors meeting and at Silver’s media session. Three of the East playoff teams – the Heat and the Bucks at 44-38, the Wizards at 43-39 – remain alive even as the 46-36 Nuggets go home.

But talk of qualifying the teams with the 16 best records regardless of conference, or of seeding the eight East and eight West clubs 1-through-16, remains just that: talk.

“I think we’re at the point right now where nobody has a better solution,” Silver said. “As we’ve talked about before, it’s a balance of travel issues vs. conference issues vs. how the schedule should be set. … We’re satisfied with where we are, because when you look at the alternative, the travel becomes overwhelming.”

Also, with the NBA’s most emotional time of year coming in the form of 15 best-of-seven series between now and the middle of June, Silver gave an update on the player-referee friction that drew attention earlier this season. The referees and the players held a small “summit” meeting at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles in February, while the league tackled the issue on a separate front.

Michelle Johnson, NBA senior VP, head of referee operations, and longtime game official Monty McCutchen, in his new role as head of referee development and training, have visited with players and coaches from each of the 30 teams in a series of “respect for the game” meetings, accompanied by other league executives.

“The reports back I’ve gotten, both from Monty and Michelle and directly from the teams, is that they’ve been very constructive,” Silver said, “and they’ve been very appreciative that we’ve taken the time to have those discussions and, again, to clarify some of the misunderstandings. But ultimately, I don’t think there are any shortcuts.”

Conversations with Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association deepens Silver’s conviction that player-referee dealings ultimately are about relationships and professional respect.

“I feel pretty good going into the playoffs that we’ve made some real progress there,” Silver said.

In other business at the spring BOG meetings:

  • Revenue sharing, as it was designed coming out of the 2011 lockout, will continue. Both the league’s “haves” and “have-nots” have certain issues with it but Silver said that probably is inevitable. “Nobody is happy who has to write those checks,” he said, “but I think … they understand the league is no stronger than its weakest team.”
  • A league investigation into the Dallas Mavericks’ workplace culture, triggered by charges of sexual harassment reported in a Sports Illustrated article, is ongoing. Silver said the process is extremely thorough and is expected to be completed by “June, early July.” He also said that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been “an open book” in cooperating with investigators.
  • A series of tiebreaker drawings were held shortly before the news conference, determining draft position and odds in advance of the draft lottery itself on May 15. The number of teams that competed for spots near the bottom of each conference – “tanked,” to use a word the NBA isn’t thrilled about – had Silver hoping the league will continue to find ways to end or reduce the practice.

“We recognize that our goal was to put the best competition on the floor, and it’s balanced against legitimate rebuilding of some teams,” he said. “But I know we’re not there yet, and I certainly wasn’t satisfied.”

Changes in the lottery beginning in 2019 will flatten the odds and broaden the number of teams vying for the top picks, and Silver is hoping that improves the situation.

“There can only be so much cajoling out of the league office,” he said. “It’s one of those things that the last place I want to go as the commissioner of the league office is to start dictating minutes and which particular players should be playing at what points in the game.

“I recognize that the incentives are not aligned right now. … My sense is we’re still going to have some work to do.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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