Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Which playoff system is better - reseeding or bracket?

Not much for me to watch live these days, though I should start checking out Japanese baseball games in the next few days as the weather in Tokyo is perfect for an outdoor game. I'm particularly interested in doing a few minor league games here as I've only seen one of those and there are a number of teams located nearby. However, according to this website, the minor league parks are not that interesting. But with the games taking place during the day, and me with nothing better to do, I'll try to visit each one over the next couple of months.

So with nothing to report on, I thought I'd ask a question for all of my loyal readers (Hi Mom and Dad!). With the NHL and NBA playoffs reaching their second round match-ups, I'm wondering what system of seeding is better. In the NHL, the highest-seeded remaining team plays the lowest, while the other two teams battle it out. The NBA, on the other hand, uses a bracket system. The winner of the 1-8 matchup will always play the 4-5 winner, while the 2-7 and 3-6 winners meet.

I believe the NHL's system is fairer for the teams involved, but the bracket option does allow for different rounds to be played at the same time, which is better for TV.

Let's look at the NHL's Western Conference as an example of why the NHL system is better for the teams involved (at least the higher-seeded ones). With #1-seed San Jose losing today to the 8th-seeded Anaheim, #3 Vancouver now gets to play #4 Chicago instead of #2 Detroit, which would be the option in a bracket system. This is certainly more appropriate for both Vancouver and Detroit, who get weaker opposition, which they earned by being division champions. It would be silly to have the 2-3 seeds facing each other while the Hawks and Ducks duked it out. As well, in the bracket system, Vancouver would have one less home game, well Chicago would get one more. I don't think that rewards the higher seed as it should, neither competitively nor financially.

With the bracket system though, you have the advantage of starting a second round matchup should both teams win their first series quickly. For example, the Lakers are already through and if Houston wins over Portland tomorrow, we might get Game 1 of the Lakers-Rockets series as early as Friday night, while some other first round matchups are going on. But I'm sure the Rockets would rather play Denver, which would be the case in a re-seeding system if the Nuggets and Mavericks held on to win their series. Another potential problem with staggering the start of series is when the earlier-scheduled series is a sweep. Suddenly the team may have a week off to await their next opponent. I'm not sure if momentum is lost or the extra rest is useful (I'd guess the latter in basketball), but it doesn't seem quite right that the playoffs can be substantially altered for television.

When you have a larger pool of teams, such as in the NCAA tournament, a bracket is the only solution. But in the pro ranks, I think that re-seeding the teams is the better system. The bracket option becomes unfair to higher seeds when an upset occurs. If the 8 seed wins, the 2-3 will play each other, while the 4 plays the 8. The loss of a home game plus the potential "best matchup" being played in the second round hurts franchises and fans, and is not worth the benefit of an extra couple of games on a Sunday afternoon.

But as the NBA has far fewer upsets than the NHL, the seeding vs bracket issue isn't that meaningful and it won't become a hot-button issue anytime soon. I'd guess that if the NBA approaches the level of parity seen in the NHL and sees more upsets like the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007, the debate may become a bit louder. For now though, the first three rounds of the NBA playoffs are just a prelude to the Cavalier-Laker final that could be one of the best ever.

Let me know what you think.



  1. How about following the format of the NBDL? The division winners get to choose which one of the bottom four clubs that they want to play in the first round, then they go from there.....

  2. Hey Sean,

    With the NHL, I agree that reseeding works best. But I'd like them to seed the teams as they used to quite a while ago. The seeding would be based on the entire league, and not by conference. I like to see more potential variations in the playoff matchups. And it should be possible for 2 teams in the same conference to meet in the Stanley Cup finals.

    Hey Gary Bettman, are you listening?

    Sean S.