Thursday, April 21, 2011

Choosing Your Playoff Opponent

The Chicago Bulls had the best record in the National Basketball Association this season and were seeded first in the Eastern Conference playoffs. As a result, the team is facing the eighth seed, Indiana, in the playoffs.
But what if Chicago matched up better against seventh-seeded Philadelphia? Or sixth-seeded New York entered the playoffs on a terrible losing streak? Or fifth-seeded Atlanta had a host of injuries? Chicago might prefer one of those opponents. But it still has to play Indiana; there's no choice in the matter.
But in Sweden's top hockey league, the Elitserien, there is.

Eight of the 12 teams in the league make the playoffs, and the No. 1 seed gets first choice of who to play in the first round. It can pick any of the 5 through 8 seeds. Then No. 2 gets to choose, followed by 3, with 4 getting whichever of the 5-8 teams is left.
There are no options for the semifinals though; the best remaining seed gets the worst remaining seed, like it or not.
This past season, which ended last week, top-seeded HV71 made the safe choice and picked 8th-seeded AIK. No. 2 also played it safe, picking No. 7. But No. 3 chose to play No. 5 rather than No. 6. (Hilariously, AIK ended up sweeping HV71, 4 games to 0. So much for the safe pick.) In 2010, there was also one unconventional choice, as 2 opted for 6 as its opponent, rather than 7 (and won 4-1).

By the way, while National Hockey League and most N.B.A. seven-game series are played in a HH-AA-H-A-H format (better seeded team gets two home games, then two away games, etc.), the Swedish League alternates every game for a H-A-H-A-H-A-H format. And in 2009-10 they used an unusual A-H-A-HH-A-H format; yes, the better seeded team  had to start on the road and play two of the first three games there, but then got three of the last four at home (if needed).

The Elitserien is not the only league in the world to offer its teams choice of playoff opponents. In a more limited way, so does the Super League, a mostly-English rugby league. Eight teams make the playoffs, with the first week consisting of a qualifying bracket featuring 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3, and an elimination bracket of  5-8 and 6-7. The winners of the qualifying matches advance to the semifinals and get a week off, while the losers play the winners of the elimination matches in week 2.
Here's where the choice (dubbed "Club Call") comes in. The qualifying round winner with the better record gets to decide which of the week 2 winners it wants to play.

Choosing one's playoff opponent is an interesting twist and opens up some exciting possibilities. Imagine if the top seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament got first pick of opponent, followed by the second seed, etc. The ratings of the selection show would soar if you had a live camera on Jim Calhoun sweating whether to pick a game against Harvard or Coastal Carolina.
Don't expect to see it in the conservative world of American sports anytime soon though. Coaches would probably not want it, for fear of giving "bulletin board material" to the team they selected. Most likely everyone would pick the safe choices. We'd probably get a lot of "We respect all the teams, and so we selected the lowest seed, but that's not to say it's going to be an easy series. Blah, blah, blah."
More's the pity.

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