WNBA teams have been battling since mid-May to be a part of the top eight teams that will advance to the WNBA playoffs, but for some the journey ended in one single-elimination game. The playoffs resumed on October 3rd with two game 3s in the semifinals. The Chicago Sky clinched a win over the Connecticut Sun to take a 2-1 lead in their series. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Mercury grabbed a second straight blowout win against the Las Vegas Aces, going up 2-1 in their series. However, teams like the New York Liberty, Dallas Wings, Seattle Storm, and Minnesota Lynx weren’t able to display their months of hard work in more than 2 games.
WHAT WAS THE PREVIOUS FORMAT?
According to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel, the prior playoff format comprised the league being divided between Eastern and Western conferences, with the top four teams from each conference making the playoffs. The conference semifinals and conference finals were best-of-three series, while the WNBA Finals were best-of-five. Before that, the WNBA Finals were also best-of-three but that changed during the 2005 postseason.
One of the biggest disadvantages to this format was that in a small league, the conferences didn’t maximise the playoff potential between the East and West. A conference could have two or three of the best teams in one season, but they would have to eliminate each other before the Finals. The split seemed to become an obstacle to getting the best matchups for the Finals.
In addition, the best-of-three conference finals seemed far too short. Compared to the NBA’s best-of-seven format, the WNBA’s best-of-three didn’t offer a dynamic setup where teams would have an opportunity for comebacks late in the series.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT FORMAT?
Jack Maloney of CBS reported that the WNBA introduced the current playoff format in 2016. The league completely discarded the conferences and began sending the top eight teams to the playoffs regardless of conference affiliation. Under this system, they rank teams 1-8. Seed 5 plays 8, and 6 plays in single-elimination games. The winners then play the 3rd and 4th seeds in yet another single-elimination second-round game. These winners then play seeds 1 and 2 in the best-of-five semifinals, followed by the best-of-five WNBA Finals.
The top two seeds get a bye all the way to the semifinals, with teams seeded 3 and 4 getting a bye to the second round.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WITH THIS FORMAT?
Mechelle Voepel and Kevin Pelton from ESPN interviewed coaches and players and reported an overall consensus that the single-elimination games are far from ideal. This includes the teams that benefit from the double-bye into the semifinals.
“I think every coach and GM in the league is advocating for [more] series,” Curt Miller, the coach/general manager of the Connecticut Sun, told ESPN. “While this [system] benefits 1-2, you’ve seen some teams that have outstanding seasons — including us in 2017 and ‘18 — be a 3 or 4-seed, work their tails off for four or five months and in one [disappointing game], you’re out.”
Since the current format started, there have been four Finals matchups that couldn’t have been possible under the old system: Minnesota-Los Angeles in 2016-2017 , Washington-Connecticut in 2019 and Seattle-Las Vegas in 2020. However, Miller even expressed on behalf of the league that they feel they “deserve series,” and want to “get rid of the byes.”
WHAT IS THE BEST AND MOST REALISTIC FORMAT?
“I think we shoot ourselves in the foot with the playoff format; it’s the best time of our season, but we’re limiting games played,” Miller said. “We don’t get to see as many of the great series that people tend to get emotionally invested in.”
A coach suggested to Mechelle Voepel that having the first round, semifinals and WNBA Finals all be 5-5-5 someday might be ideal. One day the WNBA Finals can comprise a best-of-seven series, like the NBA, but for now, they should direct the focus towards getting away from single-elimination games and byes.
The WNBA can’t support having 2 conferences within the playoffs while creating a competitive playoff schedule. Instead, if the league keeps the top eight seeds, generating a more limited playing field with the season’s best players and teams, they can focus on a more standardised format. The best schedule would mimic the NBA playoffs. The first round comprises four best-of-three series: 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. Then, the league would reseed the winners for the best-of-five semi-finals, and continue to the best-of-five WNBA Finals.
“We need to go to a 3-5-5 [series] format,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello told Mechelle Voepel. “So hopefully that will happen next year.”