The movement initially took hold in November, when even passing NBA fans noticed the massive disparity in win/loss records between the Western and Eastern Conference. It received a kick in the tail late last month, when Grantland’s Zach Lowe penned a typically thoughtful column calling for the abolishment of divisions. And now NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, set to take over for the retiring David Stern in February, is on record saying he’ll at least consider doing away with the damned things.
With November turning into December and the trend barely abating as the West continues to pile up wins, while the East slags about, it probably won’t take very long for some cranks to wonder if the entire idea of conferences within the NBA are an anachronistic venture. Why should a successful and smart team like the Dallas Mavericks have to play the far away (and quite good) Portland Trail Blazers four times, when the similarly spaced Miami Heat gets to buffer its win totals against the awful Milwaukee Bucks?
The NBA is likely so embarrassed about the totals so far this season that, as far we can tell, they declined to fine both the Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns for taking pot shots at the East through their Twitter accounts. The league probably didn’t want to draw more attention to those tweets and the current gulf between the two conferences; because you know the NBA didn’t decline the fine because they developed a sense of humor out of nowhere.
The frustration, especially for fans of those on the playoff bracket bubble out west, has been growing for a decade and a half. A series of poor executive moves from various Eastern Conference teams, mixed with some lottery luck and Michael Jordan’s retirement shifted the league’s fortunes in a western direction in the late 1990s. Since that term the East has snuck in some rather crummy basketball teams, working with records inflated by an easy Eastern schedule, into several postseasons.
This season is shaping up to be the worst yet, with the 10-14 Boston Celtics set to “earn” the East’s fourth seed should they eventually win the Atlantic Division. What’s more telling about Boston’s situation is that they’d outright earn the seventh seed in the Eastern playoff bracket regardless of the NBA rules that place a division winner in the top half of the bracket by law. The East only features two teams with records above .500, with the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks having won only half their games, and the 10-12 Charlotte Bobcats (after winning a combined 28 games in the previous two seasons) have the conference’s fourth best record.
That’s pathetic, whether it’s by design (Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, and to some degree Toronto were built to punt the season), injury (Chicago, and possibly New York and Brooklyn if we’re being kind), or incompetence (everyone else). Meanwhile, the team with the 13th-best winning percentage in the West (your injury-hit Memphis Grizzlies) would rank fourth in the East, and five different current Western Conference lottery participants would get into the postseason if they played in the crummier conference.
The solution to the divisional problem is obvious, you get rid of them. Some owners, such as Dallas’ Mark Cuban, say that the format does increase the value of a rivalry and helps sell both tickets and enhance intrigue, but that’s really only true when it involves the Texas triangle with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, or the Atlantic Division excluding Toronto. Nobody cares about the Southeast Division even though it houses the two-time defending champs, and even this longtime NBA writer would have a tough time discerning just who, exactly, fills up the three divisions out west. They just don’t matter, and awarding a division winner with a guaranteed high seed is a joke.
Complete and total conference abolishment? That’s a different story.
It’s a story that has come up dozens of times since Jordan’s retirement, with ardent NBA fans begging for a 1-through-16 playoff format that would credit the teams with the best records regardless of conference placement. The regular season scheduling could stay the same, they argue, with the former conference foes playing each other three or four times a year with only one home and away game against teams working in that “other” conference, just as long as the best teams get in the playoffs.
The issue here is the difference between the NBA and other sports with arbitrary “leagues” within themselves like Major League Baseball and the National Football League. It’s the difference between basketball, the relatively leisurely sport of baseball, and the one-and-done football postseason schedule. Running a best of seven or even best of five series in the first and second rounds of the NBA postseason between teams from all over North America just isn’t feasible.
Most seasons it isn’t, at least.
In years past, first round pairings between Phoenix and the then-New Jersey Nets or Portland and Washington got in the way of taking a complete conference haul seriously. You couldn’t expect teams from across the country to bound about those chartered flights while keeping the same NBA playoff format. There are just too many miles to cover, certainly not worth it even if it meant a 43-win Western Conference team would be on the outside looking in on the playoffs.
This year? It would work.
As of today, the only far-far-away pairing in the 1-through-16 bracket’s first round would have Indiana taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in a frequent flier rematch of their 2000 NBA Finals matchup. Memphis taking on Portland is a bit of a mess, but those are two Western squads – it could happen under the current format. Because there are so many Western teams amongst the top 16, first round matchups like New Orleans and San Antonio, or Minnesota and Oklahoma City would result. Dallas would play Houston, even. Coincidentally, if the season ended on Thursday, the only two other Eastern teams in the top 16 (Miami and Atlanta) would play each other.
So, yes, abolishing conferences because of the West’s tilted success would be the right thing to do this season. There are just too many great Western teams to argue away keeping any Eastern Conference team ranked below the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs.
The problem here is what happens the season after the abolishment. The East is bound to improve, too many smart general managers are doing too many smart things with the lesser teams out East, and the loaded 2014 draft is going to help quite a bit. And from there, should the NBA go with a 1-through-16 format, you’d be back with the same problem we faced in years past when considering the abolishment of conferences: Orlando playing Portland in the first round, Boston working against the Thunder, and too many miles to cross. Football can get away with it with one game per playoff round, and baseball can get away with it because those guys sit around all game. Basketball is different.
The divisions have to go. They’re pointless and they don’t move the needle in the slightest when it comes to establishing rivalries. Continue to schedule Miami and Orlando four times a year, and Miami and Milwaukee only three times, and move on. And take down those stupid division title banners, NBA teams. Those are just creepy.
Conferences? MLB and the NFL are allowed to use arbitrary “National” and “American” leagues because of the makeup of their sport. Hockey and basketball are different, and they need the geographical consolidation even with chartered flights and all manner of luxury perks. Conferences have to stick.
Things will improve out East. And while that may be cold comfort to the 2001 Houston Rockets, the 2004 Utah Jazz, or the potential 47-win team (currently, and coincidentally, either Golden State or Dallas) that could miss out on the playoffs this season, it’s a system that has to sustain. It’s not perfect, but we wouldn’t want it that way – not in a league whose fortunes are often tilted irrevocably by lottery chance, a tweaked knee, or one bad trade by a once-beloved general manager that can affect the next ten years for a franchise. The ripple effects from butterfly wings loom large in this league, and that’s why it’s so damn interesting.
We can understand why the punters want change, though. The East is an embarrassment, and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
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