The WNBA on Thursday announced it is changing its playoff format, most notably doing away with single-elimination games and byes.
Starting with the 2022 WNBA season, the eight teams with the highest winning percentage over a 36-game schedule advance to the postseason and are seeded by record. The first round — where the No. 1 seed faces the No. 8 seed, the No. 2 seed plays No. 7, and so on — consists of four best-of-3 series. The semifinals and WNBA Finals will continue to be best-of-5 series.
The playoff changes are the WNBA’s first since 2016, when the top two seeds were awarded double byes into the semifinals, the third and fourth seeds were given a bye into the second round, and single-elimination games decided the first and second rounds.
During the 2021 WNBA postseason, outcry to dump single-elimination games reverberated throughout the league, and league coaches believed changes were coming to the playoff format.
Now that they’re here, we break down the biggest wins and dissect areas that might face the biggest scrutiny — and elicit future change.
For the first time since 2016, the WNBA is changing its playoff format. What did the league get right?
Voepel: It seemed like everyone I talked to this past season — players, coaches and general managers — was ready to do away with single-elimination games. They could be exciting, no doubt, just like NCAA tournament games. But it meant some pretty good players were out of the playoffs the night the postseason began, and there was no chance for teams to make adjustments after a loss. It just didn’t seem like the best thing for a professional league.
In fact, WNBA Players Association executive director Terri Jackson said that getting rid of single-elimination games was one of the primary objectives of the players, who felt the format was forced on them by the league.
One thing the players did like was keeping the top eight seeds regardless of conference. It seemed no one was keen to return to the top four from both the Eastern and Western conferences making the playoffs, which was the league’s format from 2000-15.
The big change to do away with conferences in 2016 gave us some of the best Finals we’ve ever seen, which happened to have teams from the same conference: 2016 and ’17 (Los Angeles vs. Minnesota) and 2019 (Washington vs. Connecticut). I wouldn’t have wanted to lose that. But I’m OK with the top two seeds no longer getting byes. It’s not that I want to devalue the regular season, but I wasn’t ever that happy with those teams not playing at all for the first several days of the playoffs.
Pelton: Keeping the single playoff bracket without conferences is probably my favorite aspect of the new format. I agree with Mechelle that it has produced some better matchups than we would’ve otherwise gotten when there was an imbalance between the two conferences.
Aside from that, simply getting more WNBA playoff games seems like a good thing, even if it creates schedule challenges.
What are your biggest concerns with the new format?
Pelton: I think it’s the potential for overcorrecting — from giving the top two seeds a huge boost to instead devaluing the regular season as Mechelle mentioned. This change is interesting to contrast with the NBA adding a play-in tournament (single-elimination for the loser of the matchup between the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds), which has been touted by NBA executive vice president of strategy and analytics Evan Wasch for creating more break points of competition — to get into the top six and avoid the play-in — then for seeding within it.
The WNBA’s old format featured tons of break points with the multiple sets of byes. Teams will still have incentive to get home-court advantage, certainly, but there’s no longer nearly as much benefit to finishing in the top two. Add in a longer postseason (up to 13 games, compared to a maximum of 10 for teams with double byes beforehand) and the longer regular season (expanding from 34 games to 36), and I suspect we’ll see more teams resting stars at the end of the regular season rather than pushing for every win.
Voepel: The 2-1 format of the first round — with the better seed hosting Games 1 and 2, and the lower seed hosting Game 3 if necessary — could be a problem. A series sweep means that the lower-seeded team doesn’t get a playoff game at home. But if the series goes the distance, the decisive game has the better-seeded team on the road. And that’s not a good set-up, either.
The old format initially had the first game of the best-of-3 series hosted by the lower seed, then the last two hosted by the better seed. That had its issues, too, because the team with the superior record had to open on the road.
Then in 2010, the league went to the most fair format for a best-of-three series: 1-1-1, which was used for the conference semifinals and conference finals. Under this current format, though, 1-1-1 would add even more travel, which is tough since the semifinals are now best-of-5.
If the league can’t go to 1-1-1, then 1-2 might be the better option than 2-1. Under 1-2, both teams are guaranteed a home game, although it does put the better seed at more risk of being swept.
The 2022 season will include 36 regular-season games and as many as eight additional playoff games. How difficult will it be to squeeze in that many games around the FIBA World Cup, which starts in late September?
Voepel: This was a big concern for coaches I talked to during the season who were pretty sure the playoff changes were coming. The FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup is Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in Australia. With an All-Star Game, the Commissioner’s Cup and the expanded regular season, that’s a lot of games in a compact time frame. The WNBA has to do this every four years to accommodate the World Cup, but it’s not easy.
The concern is keeping players as healthy as possible, and travel takes a toll. We saw more back-to-back games in the same place this past season to limit some of the travel, and we can expect more of that. And coaches will have to be smart about load management. You still want to get as high a seed as possible, but with the byes for 1-2 no longer in play, resting players might be deemed more important.
The WNBA will continue to reshape its playoff format in years to come. What changes do you predict to be among the next wave?
Pelton: The first time a better seed goes on the road for Game 3 and loses, we’ll likely hear how unfair it was for them and change will come. One other thing to watch for is whether the WNBA goes back to re-seeding teams between rounds, a sneaky benefit for the top seeds under the old format. In the event of a first-round upset, the top seed may now have a more difficult path to the Finals than the No. 2 seed.
Voepel: It’s hard to see the 1-2 format for the first round lasting very long. It just seems like it will not be popular with fans. One day, I’d like to see a best-of-7 Finals, but the more games you add, the more problems to solve with the schedule. Still, it seems like that would be a natural progression.
If the long-discussed expansion happens, the league might one day think about going back to splitting the playoffs between the Eastern and Western conferences, especially if the league grows to 16 teams. But if expansion stops at 14 teams, I think it should stay as is, with the top eight teams advancing regardless of conference.
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