NBA Finals Likely Returning to 2-2-1-1-1 Format


The NBA is finally in the process of correcting one of its most puzzling, long-standing traditions by switching the NBA Finals format from 2-3-2 back to 2-2-1-1-1.

The NBA Competition Committee voted unanimously in favor of the change and now awaits the approval of league owners. The committee’s recommendation was first reported by the Boston Herald.

“The idea was raised at the competition committee and was well-received,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said Sunday, “and the committee ultimately unanimously voted to recommend the change in format.”

Personally, I can’t believe it took this long.

The NBA started with a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals when the league was created, and that lasted up until 1985, when Red Auerbach suggested to David Stern that the finals adopt a 2-3-2 format. His reason for asking was to reduce the amount of cross-country travel between the Lakers and Celtics in the championship series that year. Stern obliged, and in the 29 seasons since the rule has not changed.

But the question is, why?

The issues that prompted the rule change back then aren’t nearly as relevant anymore. It was almost 30 years ago, when airplane travel wasn’t nearly as convenient or accommodating for players as it is today. Two teams from opposite sides of the country (Boston and Los Angeles) in the Finals presented more of a problem logistically. It doesn’t anymore, and hasn’t for the past 15 years. If anything, the 2-2-1-1-1 format actually supports the dynamic culture of the NBA.

The two other major professional leagues with a best-of-seven finals series are the MLB and NHL. The MLB uses a 2-3-2 format for the World Series, while the NHL uses a 2-2-1-1-1 series for the Stanley Cup. This makes sense. MLB schedules are made up of a bunch of 3 and 4 game series that are exclusively home or exclusively away, so to use a chunking format in the championship series fits in with what the players are accustomed to.

The NHL season, just like in the NBA’s, is much more dynamic. Teams play different opponents every game and don’t usually have long streaks at home or on the road. They are used to the constant change, to traveling, to never being in one place for too long. That is the natural ebb and flow of the NBA and NHL seasons. It is why the NHL plays in a 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format and why the NBA is on its way to doing so as well.

Not to mention, the 2-3-2 format has issues of its own. Many argue that it actually has a disadvantageous effect on the team with home-court advantage, a position earned by having a better regular season record than the finals opponent.

Here is a breakdown of the number of games played in the championship series since 1985, when the finals first switched to the 2-3-2 format:

4-game series (4), 5-game series (7), 6-game series (13), 7-game series (5).

So, in the 29 finals series since 1985, almost half have ended in game 6, which makes the first 5 games of the series the most crucial. Yet in a 2-3-2 format, the higher-seeded team will play two games at home and three away before the sixth game, putting them at a disadvantage heading into what is statistically most likely to be the deciding game in the series.

The Thunder fell victim to this before even getting to the sixth game after carrying home court advantage into a Finals matchup with the Heat two seasons ago. After splitting the first two games of the series in OKC, the Heat seized momentum heading into its three-game home stretch and won the series easily 4-1. The Thunder had all the momentum in the world heading into the Finals, but something about Miami carrying a 1-1 record heading into a three-game home slate killed OKC’s confidence, and it was obvious.

Who knows whether it is more of a psychological disadvantage to be the home-court team and know that if you lose one of the first two games, the series might not return home, or whether it is more of a disadvantage for the lower-seeded team to face the burden of being expected to beat their finals opponent three straight times. The point here is that the psychological edges that stem from the 2-3-2 format currently used in the NBA Finals create the types of situations that have likely ended many historical Finals series a game or two earlier than they would have under a 2-2-1-1-1 format.

“I detest the (2-3-2 format), personally,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought it was very difficult to beat a team three times in a row. I think it’s also really, not unfair because that’d be too strong of a word, but it’s tough when you’ve fought all year and now you’ve got to go back for Game 6 and 7 on the road. That’s a tough format… I think that’s just a very difficult way of playing.”

Reformatting the championship series back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format would also keep the NBA Playoffs consistent, as all other rounds operate under this format. Why the NBA felt the need to only change the final series to a 2-3-2 format is something we may never truly know, but it certainly doesn’t make much sense anymore. It’s good to see the format will almost assuredly be changing back to its original 2-2-1-1-1 structure.

Who knows why the rule lasted so long in the first place. Maybe it was David Stern wanting to leave a little footprint in the NBA and his stubborn traditionalist mentality impeded him from allowing anyone to change it. He started as commissioner of the NBA in 1984 and will retire next season, meaning that this rule will have been in effect basically the entire span of his tenure. It’s something to think about.

Ultimately though, considering the level of basketball we saw last June between Miami and San Antonio, it’s hard to argue that things are going terribly wrong as is. Sometimes it’s just fun to be nit-picky.

What are your thoughts on the NBA format? Do you prefer the current 2-3-2 layout, or like the idea of going back to the 2-2-1-1-1 setup? Let us know in the comments section below!

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