The WNBA Is Reorganizing Its Playoff System. Could the NBA Be Next?

The WNBA will announce an expanded playoff format that will have the top eight teams, regardless of division, seeded 1 through 8. Could the NBA follow suit?

Jan 28 2016, 8:42pm

When you hear about the new playoff format. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA is set to announce a landmark shift in how it operates postseason play by ignoring conferences to create initial seeding and reseeding during each round, according to a league source.

The move dramatically changes how the WNBA will find its next champion, and it could serve as a laboratory for future changes to how the NBA playoffs run, as well.

The previous WNBA playoff system should look familiar to NBA fans: the top four teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences made the playoffs, and were seeded 1-4, playing best-of-three conference semifinal series, then best-of-three conference finals series, then a best-of-five WNBA Finals between the East winner and the West winner.

The new setup will seed the top eight WNBA teams, regardless of conference. The top two seeds receive a double-bye to the third round, while the third and fourth seeds receive a bye to the second round. Round 1 is single elimination: 5 plays 8, 6 plays 7, loser goes home.

Round 2 is also single elimination: 3 plays lowest remaining seed, 4 plays next-lowest remaining seed. Then come the semifinals: these are a best-of-five, a significant change from the best-of-three semifinals of years past. The one-seed plays the lowest remaining seed, the two-seed plays the other remaining team. The WNBA Finals will remain a best-of-five series.

To put this in context, here's how the WNBA playoffs played out last season, with the Minnesota Lynx winning Game 5 and the championship.

Here's how it would have played out last year under the new format: The Liberty would have gotten the top seed and a bye into the semifinals, as would No. 2 seed Lynx. Elena Delle Donne's Chicago Sky would have earned the third seed, Brittney Griner's Phoenix Mercury the fourth. Tamika Catchings' Indiana Fever would've finished fifth, taking on the Atlanta Dream, who won a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Connecticut Sun, in the first round. Neither the Dream nor the Sun made the playoffs last year at 15-19, while the 14-20 Los Angeles Sparks did as the fourth seed in the West.

For that final playoff berth, there would have been a three-way race coming down to the final day of the season. The Washington Mystics and Tulsa Shock would have been sixth and seventh, with the tiebreaker, ironically, of record-versus-opposing-conference giving the home game to the Mystics.

It's all kinds of interesting to consider what the new format means for the league itself. With Diana Taurasi returning, and the Liberty possibly without Epiphany Prince due to injury for much of the season, the emerging consensus is that the Mercury and the defending champion Lynx are the two best teams in this year's WNBA. The new format means we could see this drama play out in the Finals, with a WNBA trophy on the line, even though both teams are in the West.

The extent to which the NBA is using the WNBA as a laboratory will become clear in the coming years, but it is notable that this new change comes a few months after the WNBA enacted a draft lottery reform that many believed the NBA itself could institute, and which it still might. It's certainly no secret to anyone in the league office that the Golden State Warriors are 42-4 and the San Antonio Spurs are 39-7. Both have been historically great, but if and whenever these two teams meet in the playoffs, under the current conference playoff structure, it will not be the NBA Finals.

Now we get to find out whether the world ends if two teams from the same time zone play for a championship. The WNBA is trying to set up a Finals match-up between the league's best teams. It seems safe to assume that the NBA will be watching.