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WNBA’s single-elimination playoff format was perfect until the 2018 season happened

Single-elimination rounds worked well when there were two dominant teams, but that wasn’t the case in the WNBA this season.

WNBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The WNBA Playoffs radically changed its format two years ago. Since then, there have been some obvious successes — namely, the two straight years of Lynx vs. Sparks that format change produced.

But with the league so wide open this season, there have been some unexpected ripple effects. Several of the league’s flagship stars and franchises including Maya Moore, Liz Cambage, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Sylvia Fowles went out i night one.

Wait, what? What’s the format?

Back in 2016, the league introduced two single-elimination rounds to open its eight-team tournament, which added pressure right from the opening tip. Meanwhile, the WNBA’s two best teams received double byes and play the two winners of the early rounds in best-of-five semifinal series. The top eight teams are ranked irrespective of their conference finish.

Here’s the setup:

FIRST ROUND (SINGLE ELIMINATION)

No. 8 seed AT No. 5 seed
No. 7 seed AT No. 6 seed

SECOND ROUND (SINGLE ELIMINATION)

Higher-seeded winner AT No. 4 seed
Lower-seeded winner AT No. 3 seed

SEMIFINALS (BEST OF 5)

Highest-seeded winner vs. No. 2 seed
Lowest-seeded winner vs. No. 1 seed

FINALS (BEST OF 5)

Semifinal winners

The hope was that the new format would build more fan interest and generate higher stakes in early rounds while also helping to ensure the best teams played each other by the end. When two teams were dominating the league, this new format accomplished both goals.

But this year’s topsy-turvy season, which saw the Sparks and Lynx limp to the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds while the up-and-coming Seattle Storm and the surprising Atlanta Dream grabbed the double byes, has created a new bug in the system.

Even back in 2016, this change wasn’t necessarily what all players want. The frustration of playing a 34-game season over four months, only to have it end with a single a night, is a clear concern to many players. Many of the stars SB Nation spoke to in the build-up to the 2016 playoffs reluctantly accepted the new setup and realize it’s out of their control. Many more surely will sound off when their seasons end prematurely this year.

What actually changed?

In previous seasons, the playoffs were more traditional: three rounds long and conference-specific, with a best-of-three format in the first two rounds and a best-of-five in the Finals.

Here’s how it once worked:

FIRST ROUND (BEST OF 3)

East No. 1 seed vs. East No. 4 seed
East No. 2 seed vs. East No. 3 seed
West No. 1 seed vs. East No. 4 seed
West No. 2 seed vs. East No. 3 seed

SECOND ROUND (BEST OF 3)

East No. 1 OR 4 vs. East No. 2 OR 3
West No. 1 OR 4 vs. West No. 2 OR 3

FINALS (BEST OF 5)

East champion vs. West champion

The new playoff format expanded the tournament to four rounds, with the two best teams given a double-bye and the third- and fourth- best teams a single bye regardless of conference. The semifinals changed to best-of-five rather than a best-of-three, and the finals remain a best-of-five.

Who qualified this year

To make this transition, the WNBA also changed how teams qualify for the playoffs. The eight teams with the best winning percentages qualified, rather than the top four from each conference.

Here’s how the seeding worked in 2018.

  1. Seattle Storm: 26-8 (double bye)
  2. Atlanta Dream: 23-11 (double bye)
  3. Washington Mystics: 21-12 (single bye)
  4. Connecticut Sun: 21-13 (single bye)
  5. Phoenix Mercury: 20-14
  6. Los Angeles Sparks: 19-15
  7. Minnesota Lynx: 18-16
  8. Dallas Wings: 15-19
  9. Las Vegas Aces: 14-19 (missed playoffs)
  10. Chicago Sky: 13-21 (missed playoffs)
  11. New York Liberty: 7-27 (missed playoffs)
  12. Indiana Fever: 6-28 (missed playoffs)

Under the old system, the Wings would have missed the playoffs on account of finishing fifth in the West. That would’ve meant less Liz Cambage in our lives, which would’ve been a bad thing.

So who plays who, and where do they play?

The No. 5 seeded Mercury beat the No. 8 seeded Wings, then No. 6 seeded Sparks beat No. 7-seeded Lynx on Tuesday night. Now the Sparks will play the No. 3 Mystics on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET and the Mercury will play the No. 4 Sun at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Game 1 of conference semifinals is Sunday on ESPN2, with the Dream facing the higher-seeded winner from the second round at 3 p.m. ET and the Storm facing the lower-seeded winner at 5 p.m. ET.

So my favorite team could be sent packing in the next three days after just one game?

Yes. Sorry.

Why would the league want to send either the Lynx home so soon?

Again: this year was the bug in the system. They were supposed to be the two best teams in the league, but due to injury and aging, both underachieved.

After the Lynx loss, coach Cheryl Reeve spoke about how the league needs to change from single-elimination games:

In theory, though, the change aims to deliver a high level of entertainment from the get-go. An entire season rests upon the outcome of a single game. This is how the NCAA Tournament generates so much interest and why baseball is copying the model.

Who does this actually help?

Two types of teams: A team on the rise after a slow start, and the two best teams in the league.

The Seattle Storm are the second type of team this year, but when the format was introduced two years ago, they were the No. 8 seed on the rise. Back then, they were relieved knowing it only took one win to advance.

“Obviously it puts a lot on one game, but there’s something fun about that,” Sue Bird told SB Nation before the 2016 playoffs. “I think it’s motivating that if you get in [to the playoffs], you have a shot. You just have to win one game. You don’t have to beat a really good team on the road in order to win in a 3-game series. You just have to do it once.”

The Storm finished the season 7-3 since the Olympic break after starting the year 9-15. They were the perfect candidate to take advantage of the new format. Alas, they lost to the Dream in their opening game.

Now, they’ll look to benefit on the other end. The upside of being a top seed only grew once the format changed, as they are afforded double byes, a pair of best-of-five series, and a better chance at playing a weaker team that escaped the elimination rounds. They also have a full week to rest after the end of the regular season.

That is a major boost to the Dream, who barely held off the surging Mystics and high-flying Sun for the No. 2 seed. Just four games separated the No. 2-seeded Dream and No. 6-seeded Sparks in the standings, yet the Sparks and No. 5 seeded Mercury must play two elimination games before the Dream even have to take the court.

What do the players think?

Back in 2016, they mostly accepted it, though some more begrudgingly than others.

“It is what it is at this point,” then-Chicago Sky star Elena Delle Donne told SB Nation. “I don’t think any of us want to play an entire season for a single-elimination game, but at this point it is what it is.”

In 2016, Delle Donne’s Chicago Sky claimed the No. 4 seed. Under the old system, they would have been given home-court advantage for a best-of-3 series against the Indiana Fever. In this new format, they didn’t even know their opponent, though they did ultimately defeat Atlanta before losing in four games to the Sparks in the semifinals.

This season, Delle Donne is the leader of the Washington Mystics, who closed the season winning eight of their last nine games.

But that wasn’t enough to leap-frog the Dream, so Delle Donne’s hot finish could end after just one game. If the fifth-seeded Mercury defeat Dallas as expected, that means Washington must play a do-or-die game against either of the last two WNBA champions.

Players certainly agreed that the new format energized the stretch run in 2016, and it did the same this year with so much congestion in the standings.

I’ve read all this and I think this change isn’t fair. It will ruin my team’s chance of winning a title.

That depends on your favorite teams. While the opening rounds may be exciting, the semifinals and finals are a best-of-5 series. That made it more difficult for an upstart to knock off dominant favorites like the Lynx and Sparks in years past, and they didn’t.

One could argue that was a step in the right direction for the league as a whole. It certainly worked out in ensuring two straight epic WNBA Finals. The league benefitted from having the Lynx and Sparks advance and create a rivalry help grow the game.

But this year threw a wrench into that plan. The first single-elimination day alone featured stars like Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Diana Taurasi, Brittany Griner, Liz Cambage, and Skyler Diggins-Smith. That made for an exciting set of games Tuesday, but half of those players were eliminated. Is that what the WNBA had in mind when making this format change? Probably not.

New stars will surely emerge, like Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes. But expect plenty of complaining when some of the league’s traditional powerhouses exit the stage earlier than the league might want.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2016 and updated to reflect the 2018 season.