The WNBA just announced that they will be changing the format of their playoff series, dropping the best-of-five games and moving to a standard three game series. This new change comes after years of complaints about lack of excitement in their playoffs.
The “wnba playoff schedule” is the new format for the WNBA playoffs. The first round of the playoffs will be a best-of-three series with two teams playing each other, while the second and third rounds will be single elimination.
8:15 p.m. Eastern
Mechelle Voepel Mechelle Voepel Mechelle Voepel
- Mechelle Voepel is an espnW reporter that covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports. Voepel has been with ESPN since 1996 and has covered women’s basketball since 1984.
Kevin Pelton is a British actor.
Senior Writer for ESPN
- Pro Basketball Prospectus series co-author
- Previously, he worked as a consultant with the Indiana Pacers.
- WARP rating and SCHOENE system were created.
The WNBA announced on Thursday that it would change its playoff system, including eliminating single-elimination games and byes.
Starting with the 2022 WNBA season, the eight teams with the greatest winning % across a 36-game schedule are seeded by record and proceed to the playoffs. The first round consists of four best-of-three series, with the No. 1 seed facing the No. 8 seed, the No. 2 seed facing the No. 7, and so on. The WNBA Finals and semifinals will remain best-of-five series.
The WNBA’s first playoff adjustments since 2016, when the top two seeds had double byes into the semifinals, the third and fourth seeds received a bye into the second round, and the first and second rounds were determined by single-elimination games.
During the 2021 WNBA postseason, there was widespread support for eliminating single-elimination games, and league coaches thought that the playoff structure would be altered.
Now that they’ve arrived, we’ll break down the major successes and evaluate areas that may face the most scrutiny in the future, in order to elicit future change.
The WNBA is revamping its playoff structure for the first time since 2016. What did the league get right this time around?
Voepel: This past season, it felt like everyone I spoke with — players, coaches, and general managers — wanted to get rid of single-elimination games. They could, without a doubt, be thrilling, similar to NCAA tournament games. However, it meant that some of the best players were already out of the playoffs before the season started, and teams had no time to recover after a defeat. It just did not seem to be the ideal option for a professional league.
In fact, according to Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association, getting rid of single-elimination games was one of the players’ top priorities, since they believed the format was imposed on them by the league.
The players liked the fact that the top eight seeds were kept regardless of conference. No one seems eager to return to the league’s previous model with the top four from both the Eastern and Western conferences making the playoffs, which was in place from 2000 to 2015.
The decision to do away with conferences in 2016 resulted in three of the finest Finals we’ve ever seen, with teams from the same conference: 2016 and 2017 (Los Angeles vs. Minnesota), and 2019 (Los Angeles vs. Minnesota) (Washington vs. Connecticut). That was something I didn’t want to lose. But I don’t mind if the top two seeds don’t receive byes any more. I’m not trying to minimize the importance of the regular season, but I’ve never been a fan of teams not playing at all during the first few days of the playoffs.
Pelton: My favorite element of the new model is that it keeps the single playoff bracket without conferences. I agree with Mechelle that it has resulted in some stronger games than we would have received otherwise if the two conferences were evenly matched.
Aside from that, merely increasing the number of WNBA playoff games sounds like a decent idea, even if it complicates the schedule.
What are your main reservations about the new format?
Pelton: I believe it’s the risk of overcorrecting — from giving the top two seeds a significant advantage to, as Mechelle indicated, devaluing the regular season. This change contrasts with the NBA’s addition of a play-in tournament (single-elimination for the loser of the matchup between the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds), which has been hailed by NBA executive vice president of strategy and analytics Evan Wasch as providing more break points in competition — to get into the top six and avoid the play-in — rather than seeding within it.
With numerous sets of byes, the WNBA’s former system had a lot of break points. Teams will still be motivated to win home-court advantage, but finishing in the top two will no longer provide nearly as much value. With a lengthier playoffs (up to 13 games, compared to a maximum of 10 for teams with double byes previously) and a longer regular season (from 34 to 36 games), I expect to see more teams resting stars near the conclusion of the regular season rather than chasing every victory.
“You’ve seen some teams that had fantastic seasons… work their tails off for four or five months, and in one [disappointing game], you’re gone,” Connecticut coach/GM Curt Miller said last season, advocating for series instead of single-elimination games. Brad Mills of USA TODAY Sports contributed to this article.
Voepel: The 2-1 first-round system, in which the higher seed hosts Games 1 and 2 and the lower seed hosts Game 3 if required, might be an issue. When a series is swept, the lower-seeded club is denied a home playoff game. If the series goes the distance, the deciding game will be played on the road by the better-seeded club. That, too, is not a good set-up.
The lower seed hosted the first game of the best-of-three series under the former system, while the better seed hosted the remaining two. That posed its own set of problems, since the side with the better record had to start on the road.
After that, in 2010, the league adopted the most equitable best-of-three series format: 1-1-1, which was utilized for the conference semifinals and finals. However, under the new structure, 1-1-1 would mean even more travel, which is difficult given that the semifinals are now best-of-five.
If the league is unable to go to 1-1-1, 1-2 may be a better choice than 2-1. Both teams are guaranteed a home game if they are seeded 1-2, however the superior seed is more likely to be swept.
There will be 36 regular-season games and up to eight playoff games in the 2022 season. How tough would it be to fit in so many games in the run-up to the FIBA World Cup, which begins in late September?
Voepel: This was a major issue among coaches I spoke with during the season who were certain that playoff adjustments were on the way. The FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup will be held in Australia from September 22 to October 1. There are a lot of games in a short amount of time with an All-Star Game, the Commissioner’s Cup, and the enlarged regular season. The WNBA is required to do this every four years in order to accommodate the World Cup, but it is a difficult task.
The priority is to keep the players as healthy as possible, and traveling takes its toll. This season, we saw more back-to-back games in the same location to save travel, and we should anticipate more of the same this year. Coaches will also need to manage their workloads carefully. You still want to secure the best seed possible, but now that the byes for the top two teams are gone, resting players may be more crucial.
In the coming years, the WNBA will continue to modify its playoff system. What changes do you think the following wave will bring?
Pelton: The first time a higher seed loses in Game 3 on the road, we’ll hear how unfair it was for them, and things will change. Another item to keep an eye on is if the WNBA reinstates the practice of re-seeding teams between rounds, which provided a sneaky advantage to the top seeds in the previous structure. If a first-round upset occurs, the top seed may have a more difficult road to the Finals than the No. 2 seed.
Voepel: The 1-2 format for the first round is unlikely to survive very long. It just does not seem to be popular with enthusiasts. I’d want to see a best-of-seven Finals someday, but the more games you add, the more scheduling issues you’ll have to deal with. Nonetheless, it seems to be a natural evolution.
If the league’s long-awaited expansion comes to fruition, the league may reconsider dividing the playoffs between the Eastern and Western conferences, particularly if the league expands to 16 clubs. However, if expansion is capped at 14 teams, I believe the system should remain same, with the top eight teams from each conference progressing.
The “how many games in wnba playoff series” is a question that has been asked before. The new WNBA playoff format changes how many games are in each series.
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