2019 WNBA playoffs: The league's unique and successful postseason format, explained

For the first 19 seasons of the WNBA's existence, the league followed a traditional playoff format, with the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences placed in a bracket based on their regular-season record. They would face each other in series until a conference champion was crowned, and the two conference champions would then meet in the WNBA Finals. 

That would all change in 2016, with the introduction of a new, unique playoff format. 

Why did the league adopt a new format?

After nearly two decades of Western Conference domination -- an East team has won the title just three times -- and sensing an opportunity to increase the importance of the regular season, the league decided to adopt a brand new playoff format. 

"First and foremost, the new postseason format provides an enhanced opportunity to showcase the best teams in the WNBA Finals," NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum said at the time. That was important considering the Western Conference finals had become the de facto WNBA Finals in the years leading up to the change. From 2010-15, there were four sweeps in the Finals, all won by West teams, and the Fever were the only East team to win it all in that span. 

What were the big changes?

  • Conference affiliation no longer relevant
  • Increased number of playoff rounds
  • Introduced single-elimination games
  • Byes awarded to top-four teams

With the change in format, conference affiliation became irrelevant for making the playoffs. Instead of the top four teams from each conference advancing to the postseason, the top eight teams in the league would do so. The change also came with a more balanced regular-season schedule. 

In addition, the number of rounds in the playoffs was increased from three to four, and large incentives were implemented to encourage competitiveness throughout the entire regular season. Starting in 2016, the top two seeds in the league receive byes all the way to the best-of-five semifinal series, while the third- and fourth-seeded teams receive byes to the second round.

Teams seeded 5-8 begin play in the first round, which is single elimination. The fifth seed hosts the eighth seed, while the sixth seed hosts the seventh seed. The two winners advance to the second round, ahead of which teams are re-seeded.

In the second round, which is also single elimination, the third seed hosts the lowest-seeded team remaining, while the fourth seed hosts the highest-seeded team remaining. The winners of these two games advance to the semifinals, ahead of which teams are once again re-seeded. 

The semifinals are when true series begin, and they are played in a best-of-five format, with the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds hosting Games 1, 2 and 5. The No. 1 overall seed plays the lowest-seeded team remaining, while the No. 2 seed plays the highest-seeded team remaining. After the semis, the winning teams advance to the WNBA Finals. 

Just like the semifinals, the Finals are a best-of-five series played in a 2-2-1 format, and the highest-seeded team remaining will have home-court advantage. In what should need no explanation, the winner of the Finals is the WNBA champion for that season. 

How have the changes worked?

Though there are some legitimate complaints about the new format (such as the fact that finishing with the third-best record in the league doesn't even guarantee you an actual series) it has been a success in the grand scheme of things. 

In 2016, the first year the changes were implemented, the Los Angeles Sparks outlasted the Minnesota Lynx in five games in one of the greatest Finals of all time. That, of course, could never have happened before because they're both Western Conference teams. The very next year, the Lynx got revenge, beating the Sparks in five games in another thrilling Finals. 

To this point, there have been no alterations to the format introduced in 2016, and it will be in use once again when the 2019 WNBA Playoffs get underway on Sept. 11. 

NBA Writer

Jack Maloney lives and writes in Milwaukee, where, like the Bucks, he is trying to own the future. Full Bio

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