A WNBA postseason primer: How it works this year by Clay Kallam
There’s a brief moment, late in August, when the WNBA gets its most media love.
In 2016, it’s right now, until college football kicks off this weekend, and baseball’s postseason chase comes into focus. The league responded as quickly as possible after the Olympics, playing 11 games this past weekend – and fans, players and coaches have started focusing on the playoffs (which begin Sept. 21).
But the playoff format is new, which adds a dash of confusion to the September stew. Before we start getting into specifics and about teams and schedules, here’s a look at how the new format shakes out.
1. The new playoff system (how it works): In case you were too busy counting L.A.’s turnovers Sunday night (21 was the total, too many unforced) to really focus on the postseason, here’s how it works:
1) Eight of the 12 teams qualify, as in the past.
2) The top two teams get byes into the semifinals, which are best of five.
3) The bottom four teams will play one game (No. 5 hosting No. 8; No. 6 hosting No. 7) in the first round, with the winner advancing.
4) The two survivors of 3) will travel to the third and fourth seeds for another one-game do-or- die playoff.
5) The winners of 4) move into the best three-of- five semis, and the two who survive that, play for the title (again, best three out of five).
Major League Baseball uses one-game playoffs for its wild-card teams, and though it has generated a little controversy, it certainly has made those games must-see TV. Though which WNBA teams survive from a bottom four that includes no one over .500 may not be that riveting, when New York, firmly in third place, has to win or die in the semis, that should get people’s attention.
And of course the semis and finals should be able to generate interest over the final weeks of the season, as the ongoing narrative of these kinds of series makes it easier for casual fans to get invested in the process. If it weren’t for that sport called football, the WNBA could expect a ratings’ boost, but unfortunately the game that leads the world in concussions is pretty damn popular.
2) The new playoff system (positive): Expanding the semifinals to best of five (from best of three) will expose more of the best of the WNBA to a national audience. At the same time, shortening the second round from best of three to a single game will hopefully limit the amount of mediocrity on display. (The WNBA, after all, is no different than any other league, with bad teams and good teams – but since 67% of the teams make postseason, more bad teams move on than in most sports.)
The single-game playoffs in the first two rounds should be big fun, and you never know what might happen. My San Francisco Giants are just one MLB team that went all the way after winning a win-or- die game and though it’s unlikely to happen here, given the way the WNBA is playing out this year, a team like Phoenix could catch fire at the right moment and surprise everyone.
And finally, the first and second round games in the past were not well attended, which wasn’t a good look for the league. Either more fans will show up for an elimination game, which would be great, or it will be over quickly and fewer empty seats will be shown on national TV, which is also a positive.
3) The new playoff system (negative): New York is 19-8 right now, clearly the third-best team in the league, and given the way L.A. has been playing, maybe the second-best team. But the Liberty will likely host a single-game elimination playoff against a team like Phoenix or Atlanta, and a hot night, foul trouble and a couple of bad calls could erase an entire season’s work in 40 minutes.
If the goal of postseason is to crown a true champion, having a team that wins ten more games (out of 34) conceivably losing to a team that won ten fewer games just isn’t right – especially if that sub-.500 team manages to get to the Finals or somehow wins it all.
The last thing the WNBA needs is the perception that it’s full of gimmicks and is more concerned with showbiz than basketball, and having a team like Phoenix come into the playoffs at 16-18 and win the title over a team like Minnesota that finished 27-7 is simply not a good look.
But it is what it is, and the WNBA leadership has rolled the dice. If the finals are a five-game war between Minnesota and L.A., there will be smiles all around; but if New York gets upset, and a .500 team claims the title, there will be legitimate grounds to complain that the WNBA is just some funky minor league with delusions of adequacy.