Storm’s Breanna Stewart: WNBA needs to change its playoff format

Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart in action against the Phoenix Mercury in a WNBA basketball playoff semifinal in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

The Phoenix Mercury are three wins away from matching the WNBA record of four WNBA titles for a franchise, with the Chicago Sky just two victories away from winning their first-ever WNBA championship.

Neither of these teams were predicted to be anywhere near the Finals but here we are watching the great Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi battle it out with a championship at stake.

But while fans eagerly await tip-off of Game 2, players and coaches in the league are hoping the playoff format changes for the next season.

Seattle Storm Forward Breanna Stewart was recently named one of the top 25 players in WNBA history before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals tipped-off. During her press conference Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion feels the league’s current two-round single-game elimination form needs to be eliminated itself.

“I think from the players’ standpoint we all would like the single elimination to be gone,” Stewart said. “Just because you work all season for an opportunity, and to have one game just kind of makes it over really quickly. Yeah, it’s the format for college, but this isn’t college. This is the WNBA.”

The Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury going into the playoffs were the Nos. 5 and 6 seeded teams, marking the first time in WNBA history teams off that low advanced to the Finals.

“I think extending the playoffs and making series out of all the rounds just makes for more viewers, more eyes to watch us, and more people to be a part of it,” Stewart added.

For the last six years, the WNBA playoff format has been two single-elimination games for first-round games between the Nos. 5 and 8 teams and Nos. 6 and 7. The winners then play the Nos. 3 and 4 seeded teams in a single-elimination second-round game. And it’s only after those two opening rounds that teams then get to start playing best-of-five series.

When Chicago general manager and head coach James Wade was asked about the format, he admitted the current format should be looked at.

“I don’t know if it’s always the best teams that win the single-elimination games, but pretty sure that it’s always the best teams that are winning a series,” Wade said. “I think you want to facilitate that as much as you can. It makes for a better product, and we’re the only basketball league professionally that does that.”

Wade added it would also help develop rivalries between the teams and add even more drama to the playoffs.

“I really would like the opportunity to play in a series from the beginning. We’ll see if that’s possible … It just makes for more basketball and even better storylines.”

Current WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert says they are reviewing the format that has been in place since 2016 before she became Commissioner.

“There’s a lot of healthy discussions, especially this time of year, about the playoff format, specifically around the single-game elimination.” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before the Finals kicked off. “We’ve been discussing this at our competition meetings, talking to different stakeholders, and we are looking at finalizing a decision on updates to the playoff format at our upcoming post-season meetings.

“So we’re looking at that, whether we would retain first-, second-round single elimination. Would one of those go to a three-game series? Would we only go to a three-game series and then go into our semis and Finals?

“What I didn’t realize because this has been studied for a long time, 2016 is when it changed to the current format. I’m sure whatever we change it to in the next 3-5 years, we’ll be looking at it again because there are pros and cons to every different playoff format.

“We’re going to be very thoughtful about it, but we’ve been having significant discussions since coming off of the last off-season, and I think we’ll be in a position to make a decision whether we’ll stay with the current format or change it over the course of the next few months.”

Although Stewart isn’t a fan of the current format, she says she isn’t taking credit away from the two teams in the Finals as it’s still a tough journey to get to the biggest stage in the WNBA.

“Credit to Chicago and Phoenix for getting through single eliminations and then the semifinals and not having much rest and still being here and proving that they are contending for a championship,” she said.

Before the 2021 Finals, the lowest-seeded team to reach the Finals was the Washington Mystics in 2018. They were the No. 3 seed and lost to 2018 WNBA MVP Stewart and her Storm.

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