The WNBA's New Playoff System Is a Success, But Not Perfect

From the fan response to the quality of the competition, the 2016 WNBA Finals seems to validate the league's decision to change the format last year. Coaches and players weigh in on how well the new system works.

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Oct 17 2016, 1:48pm

Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA made the decision last year to fundamentally alter their playoff system for the 2016 season in ways that few American professional leagues have ever tried. Seeking to create the most competitive championship possible, they eliminated conferences in favor of taking the top eight teams straight, with single byes for the third and fourth seeds, and double byes for the top two seeds.

As the first postseason under the new regime draws to a close, the experiment appears to be a success by any measure, from the size of the audience to the quality of the matchups.

It led to a Finals series between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks, two Western Conference teams that finished well ahead of the rest of the league this year. The best two teams facing off for the championship is undeniably compelling. Game 1 of the series checked in with its highest-ever rating on ABC, with viewership peaking at 693,000 during the game's final few minutes. (The series will be decided in Game 5, on Thursday.)

Read More: Nneka Ogwumike is the Most Efficient Shooter Ever in Professional Basketball

Still, not everyone is sold on the new system, and even its proponents say more study is required before drawing any conclusions

At particular issue is single-game elimination, which is used not just in the first-round five-versus-eight and six-versus-seven matchups but also for the three and four seeds. This year, for example, the No. 3 seed New York Liberty, which finished atop the Eastern Conference with a 21-13 record, were eliminated in a one-game playoff by the eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury.

"That's all the stuff that we obviously bantered about before the final decision was made," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who served on the committee that recommended these changes, said in a recent phone interview. "The bottom line is, I don't know that very many coaches enjoy a single elimination."

Minnesota avoided that by finishing at the top of the league with a 28-6 regular season, though a nearly two-week layoff threatened to pull them out of their rhythm. (On the other hand, Reeve noted that Maya Moore, the team's best player, has reached another level this postseason, and cited the time off as a probable reason why.)

Whatever danger the Lynx faced, however, paled in comparison to the long road of their opponent in the semifinals, the Mercury. As the eight-seed, Phoenix first had to beat fifth-seeded Indiana on the road, then New York on the road, only to then fly to Minnesota for their third road game in a week. The No. 4 seed Chicago Sky were only slightly more rested before facing the Sparks.

With a bit more rest thanks to the new format, Maya Moore is going to 11. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

"It would be easy for us and Minnesota to say that we don't mind the format," Sparks forward and WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike said. "We got double byes. However, before we played Chicago, it had been 12 days. And we had developed cabin fever at that point. We were ready to play days before that game. I definitely think the stakes are heightened because of the new format."

Reeve echoed this last sentiment, pointing out that the single-elimination games make for great TV. Not all coaches think that's a good thing. Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer went off on an epic rant following the final regular-season game on September 13th, as if he could foresee the disaster ahead for his team.

"You ask a coach, a coach will say this format is awful," he said. "You can play an entire season and be very successful, and you play one game and you have bad calls, or you have a sprained ankle, or you have somebody ill that can't play, and oops, you're out in one game after a whole season. I understand why they went to the format, it is what it is, but from a coaching perspective it's tough. You can play all season long, have a bad couple of mistakes, and you're out. I think this is here until the league expands. I don't think it will go away anytime soon. I think, you know, ESPN is driving the bus in a lot of ways, they are our TV partner and they think this is going to be very exciting."

Laimbeer has a point. Rewarding the top two teams far more than the six other playoff entrants makes a decent amount of sense in 2016, when the Sparks and the Lynx distanced themselves from the competition so significantly. But one need only go back to 2015 to see how it could shake out quite differently. That year, five teams finished the season within three games of the league-leading Liberty. Had the current playoff rules been in place for the 2015 season, the 23-11 Liberty would have gotten a double bye to the semis and almost two weeks off, while a 20-14 team—either the Mercury or the Fever—would have needed to win a pair of do-or-die games to reach the semifinals. That gap doesn't seem quite as fair.

This Finals matchup is a no-brainer. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Yet this simple retrofitting doesn't fully capture the effects of the new playoff system on the WNBA, either. As even Laimbeer pointed out, the threat of single elimination led to coaches working harder to maximize seeding throughout the year. It is hard to see this as a bug rather than a feature. Regular season attendance was up 4.6 percent, and television ratings were up eleven percent nationally, both likely driven at least in part by the higher stakes.

"Knowing this format going into it, it heightened the importance of every game," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "I know teams that, in years past—for example, us in 2010, we got off to a great start, we got to the end of the season, and we just started resting people. By going head-to-head and playing everybody in a balanced schedule, it forces you to be fighting all the way to the end of the season."

But even Agler was equivocal about the single-elimination format, adding, "I'd always want multiple games in each round" and citing New York's 2016 fate as an unfortunate consequence of the changes. A common refrain, even from supporters of the new system, is to make that second round a best-of-three, giving the third and fourth seeds more than one chance to move on to the semifinals.

Perhaps no one is more qualified to discuss the WNBA playoffs than Maya Moore and the Lynx, now playing in their fifth WNBA Finals in six years.

"No method is 100 percent perfect," Moore said. "Having the single elimination at the end of the year is a challenge. I can see why people get upset, having worked so hard all season, and it comes down to that one game. It's tough, and it's not ideal for that team that gets upset. But these two five-game series in the semis and finals gives you confidence that the best team, after that point, will earn that championship."

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