COMMENTARY | In their first two years in the Big Easy, the New Orleans Hornets went 47-35 and 41-41, respectively. Both seasons saw the Hornets in the NBA Playoffs. The following season, the Hornets went 18-64. What happened? In 2004-05, New Orleans moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference.
Clearly, that oversimplifies things a bit. The 2004-05 Hornets were learning a new system under coach Byron Scott. And Baron Davis was so disgruntled, New Orleans eventually traded him during the season. However, there is no denying that Western Conference NBA teams have faced stiffer competition than their Eastern Conference counterparts have for a long time.
Choosing the Hornets' relocation to New Orleans as a point of reference, since the 2002-03 NBA season, Eastern Conference teams have a combined winning percentage of .433. On the other hand, Western Conference teams have a .567 winning percentage during that same period.
Although New Orleans would have a considerably easier path to the NBA Playoffs in the Eastern Conference, competitive balance should never be a reason for realignment. Theoretically, trades, free agency and the draft should balance out the conferences over time. Although an improved Hornets' record would be an "effect" of a move to the Eastern Conference, its "cause" should be altogether different.
New Orleans moved to the Western Conference in 2004-05 when the Charlotte Bobcats joined the Eastern Conference as an expansion team. No one would ever argue that the Hornets should be in the Eastern Conference instead of the Bobcats. However, the move did put an incredible travel strain on the Hornets.
New Orleans now has to travel well over 1,000 miles to NBA cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. Obviously, Eastern Conference teams must travel even further on their west coast road trips. The difference is that the Hornets take more west coast road trips each season than Eastern Conference teams do.
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix for the Hornets' problem. New Orleans is located at 90 degrees west, which is further west than any Eastern Conference team. The Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks are the closest at 87 degrees west. So in fairness, the NBA cannot swap conferences with the Hornets and any Eastern Conference team.
One solution is to expand the NBA to 32 teams, have both new teams join the Western Conference, and move New Orleans back to the Eastern Conference. If the Sacramento Kings move to Seattle, Sacramento deserves a new NBA team. San Diego and Kansas City are possibilities for a second Western Conference team.
If pundits believe that talent is already spread too thinly across the NBA, then perhaps the league should realign more like the NFL or MLB. In these leagues, there are similar geographic divisions in both conferences. This model gives every team the same travel advantages and disadvantages. For example, one NBA South division could have four or five southern teams while the other NBA South division could have four or five other southern teams.
None of these changes will happen anytime soon. And there is clearly no easy solution. But in a perfect world, the New Orleans Hornets would play in the Eastern Conference.
Patrick Michael was born in New Orleans and currently resides in the Big Easy. Patrick has followed the Hornets since they moved to New Orleans and has covered the team since 2010. He was in attendance the night the Hornets were one win away from the Western Conference Finals. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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