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The NBA’s group stage playoff idea is amazing but flawed — let’s fix it

As with the World Cup, a group stage competition would be the most compelling thing the NBA has ever done — but it has one major problem.

Report: Toronto Raptors sign Kyle Lowry to one-year, $31 million contract extension Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The group stage of FIFA’s World Cup is the best thing sports has done ever.

There are other contenders. The NHL playoffs. March Madness. The 100 metre final in the Olympics. The final round at Augusta. All of Game of Zones. Yes. It’s all incredible.

But nothing tops the group stage. Every day there’s a mouth-watering match between planetary heavyweights. Every day there’s a chance for a historic upset that really means something — as opposed to this. Every day we find out how Europeans go insane for complicated drinking games.

It’s perfect.

Smartly deciding to use the season stoppage to explore all sorts of new options, the NBA has floated their own idea for a “World Cup.” It’s a close to perfect idea.

Basically, the league would take the top 20 teams, sort them into five tiers of four teams each, and then, randomly, place one team from each tier into five groups. Teams would play each team in their group twice, and the best two teams would move on. At this point it basically turns into the second round of the NBA playoffs and goes from there. (Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer goes into more detail here.)

The NBA proposal is somehow both better — more games against a common foe means more intra-group rivalries — and worse — the ability to undermine an entire season’s worth of effort via a few ping-pong balls — than the real thing.

In the FIFA version, the random drawing creates so-called “Groups of Death” where a number of the top-rated teams in each tier end up in the same group. The most famous example may have been in 1982 when the selected Group C included the defending champions Argentina, host Italy (who would win the tournament), and Brazil — a team that was said to have the most gifted mid-field in history.

For soccer, the draw makes total sense. It’s real-time drama that is now made for social media too — just imagine the live commentary. The ”random” results fits nicely into the corrupt and conspiracy laden world of international football. Imagine the Patrick Ewing-David-Stern-Frozen-Envelope freak-out times 100 and you have the reaction to every host nation’s soft draw ever. On top of all that, it creates match-ups you never imagined, but somehow become instant classics — remember Ghana-USA? (It’s also money for the blog world, as we leap into 1,000 word pieces for why Ghana’s industrious mid-field is a horrible match-up for the Americans.)

The problem for the NBA is that randomly drawing from a pot wipes out the significance of the regular season. In O’Connor’s piece, he cautions against a Group of Death, but doesn’t realize his example put the Raptors in one where, by playing the Celtics, Thunder, Mavericks and Spurs they have the best, or tied for best possible opponent in each tier — except for the Spurs. (And even then, we’d have to worry about DeRozan revenge games!)

If you’re a Raptors fan and after watching your team fight to the third best record in the NBA you crash out against that competition, while the Sixers feast on the Grizz and Blazers, while pushing past the Jazz to finish second in Group A — you’d be pretty pissed. Now, what if you’re a Clippers fan and it happens to you, or a Lakers fan and... wait, actually seeing the Lakers finish third because they had to beat the Celtics, Sixers, Mavs and Pelicans would be hilarious.

All kidding (or wishful thinking) aside, a random draw, as amazing as it would be as a ratings event, is fundamentally unfair — and for all the flaws in North American sport, fairness is something everyone seems to care about. To honour the 65-odd games already played and get all the benefits of the Group stage you just need to make a simple switch. Structure the groups based on the actual standings.

The Tiers would remain the same: Milwaukee, both L.A. teams and Toronto in the first one, Boston, Utah, Miami, Denver in tier two, etc. But each team would be pre-seeded based on their standings. Milwaukee, being the best team, would get the worst seed, in each tier, while the Clips — being the 4th seed in Tier one — would get all the number one seeds in the remaining tiers.

Do that and we get what I’m calling the following Earned Playoff Groups:

‘Earned’ Playoff Groups

Milwaukee LA Lakers Toronto LA Clippers
Miami Utah Denver Boston
Philadelphia Indiana Houston OKC
Orlando Brooklyn Memphis Dallas
San Antonio Sacramento New Orleans Portland

The first takeaway from this is Milwaukee fans are not going to like how the standings shook out. Miami is the one team who beat the Bucks multiple times this season, and both the Heat and the Sixers, arguably possess the kind of interior defenders, in Bam Adebayo and Joel Embiid that could slow Giannis enough to stop the Bucks.

The second takeaway is that the NBA is good, and that there is no “easy group.” The Raptors would avoid the Celtics and Thunder, but get three teams — Houston, Denver, and a Zion-led New Orleans — that all have the pieces to beat them.

The Clippers would get Boston, the league’s best crunch-time team in OKC, a Dallas team that is way better than it’s record suggests (more on that in a moment), and a possibly healthy Blazers team that would have Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to attack the Clips’ one potential weak-spot: rim defense.

The Lakers would probably be seen as having the easiest path — a possibly fractured Jazz locker room, a Pacers team still struggling to work Victor Oladipo in the mix, and fun but ultimately non-threatening teams like the Kings and Nets. Still, in Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have the perfect antidote for dealing with L.A.’s interior attack, and, just before COVID shut down the league, Oladipo had begun to round into form putting up a 19-5-4 line on 47/40/79 shooting splits.

Anyway you look at it there’s a reason for every number one seed to sweat, and instead of seeing the Lakers pummel the Kings 4-1, we get a scenario where Sacramento still pulls off one upset, except this one pushes the Lakers to 5-3 and third in their group.

In the Earned version Group C and D have the most intrigue, with both having four teams you could talk yourself into grabbing one of the two top spots — especially Group D which has Dallas sitting on that fourth seed line.

Let’s talk about those Mavericks. Despite being a 7-seed in the West, all the advanced metrics say Dallas is a top-10 opponent — it helps when you have the most efficient offense since the NBA began tracking the stat. That Kawhi and company get them would be met with resounding head-shaking from Clips Nations. The thing is, the Clippers were seeded to play the Mavs in the first round anyway. Justice?

But, let’s say we want to erase even that bit of bias. What would an “Earned” Group look like if we re-seeded the playoff teams by point differential, considered a better measure of a team’s true performance?

(Note: In this metric, wherever teams tied, I used winning percentage as the deciding factor. I also specified playoff teams, because by this metric, Phoenix would have leap-frogged the Spurs, Blazers and Kings.)

‘Earned’ Playoff Groups - Point Differential

Milwaukee LA Lakers Toronto LA Clippers
Miami Houston Dallas Boston
Philadelphia OKC Denver Utah
Orlando New Orleans Brooklyn Indiana
Sacramento San Antonio Portland Memphis

Well, crap. Let’s pretend I never did this. The Raptors now have what seems to be the most intimidating group — playing the best offense in NBA history in Luka and the Maverick-ettes, a Nuggets team that beat them twice, and lurking in the last tier, a Portland team that would have a considerably beefed-up front-court.

Interestingly enough, Milwaukee still has to finish ahead of Miami and Philadelphia (though we can all imagine the Sixers shanking that group by losing to the Magic in the final game). The Lakers group, meanwhile, is now super interesting: Their massive front-court going against the small ball Rockets? Yes please, I’ll take two of those. Zion against his predecessor LeBron? Chris Paul in a banana boat showdown?

The Clippers probably come off best in this reset. They still get the Celtics, but Utah doesn’t match-up well against the Clips and their army of perimeter defenders, while Indiana could be frisky — Domantas Sabonis would be an interesting cover — the Clips have enough long-armed types, and more than enough offensive savvy to push the Pacers away.

This time around it’s Groups B and D that seem to have the most interesting races for the top two spots. Could Zion write the first page of his legend by leading the Pels past Houston and an equally young Thunder team to get one of the top two seeds in Group B?

In Group C, would Boston’s lack of size in the middle cause them to get dunked to death by Gobert? If Oladipo is healthy, who does Kemba Walker guard? It can’t be Dipo, right? Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren both seem like bad checks too, and they have enough play-making chops to punish Boston double-teams. Would the Pacers play big so he couldn’t hide on Doug McDermott?

The more you look at this pool result, the more it makes clear how boring the first round of the NBA playoffs really are. Right now, the seventh and eighth seeds usually get beaten soundly, and at least one, but often two or three of the more “evenly” matched series end up being busts. In general, over three or four games one team clearly figures out a plan of attack (or defense) the other team doesn’t have the pieces to counter.

But this? This would be magic. Enough games to shake out total fluke results (sorry San Antonio), but few enough that one magic moment by a fifth tier team could become part of NBA history. Imagine the headlines!

“The day DeMar DeRozan scored 38, and eliminated the Toronto Raptors.”

Man. Let’s not have that one, OK?