NBA commissioner Adam Silver has picked a good season to go on record about restructuring the NBA’s playoff bracket.
In his first full year running the show, Silver is addressing what is now turning into a Conference imbalance that has droned on for over a decade and a half. The Western Conference is clearly better than the Eastern version. It hardly matters if an eventual NBA Finals between representatives from each conference turns out to be a competitive one, because deserving playoff squads are being cut from the postseason rotation out West while mediocre or worse Eastern squads are being handed playoff dates.
In years past, opponents of such restructuring (such as your humble, misguided author) could point to the cyclical nature of conference inbalances dating back through the NBA’s long history, or the tough travel that would result with either the abolishment of conferences or the allowance of letting the 16 best teams into the playoffs regardless of conference affiliation.
Those arguments aren’t working in 2014-15, and while nothing will be changed this spring, Silver is at least considering his options. Via Pro Basketball Talk, here’s what Silver said to the Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area Golden State broadcasting team while being interviewed during last night’s thrilling Warriors win over Dallas:
“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs. And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal (from one of the broadcasters)… where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues of course, but in this day in age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year two is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”
That last statement leaves no room for ambiguity, and that’s refreshing. That’s not surprising from Silver, who has made quite an impact in just 12 months on the job, but it’s also not something that can be easily processed.
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A massive chunk of NBA ownership would have to approve this, and it wouldn’t just be outfits from Detroit, Charlotte or Brooklyn that would oppose such a change. We don’t want to name names so as to spare certain fan bases the horrifying image of their favorite player being knocked out for the season, but every top notch and championship-contending team in the East is just an injury or two away from fighting to eke into the eighth seed in the bracket. It won’t be just the 38-win teams that would vote to do away with the current system.
It has to be done away with, though. Leaving conferences intact would still leave some imbalance (New Orleans still has to play Golden State four times, whereas a lower-rung Eastern hopeful can build up their resume with four easy wins over Philadelphia), but eliminating the current format to include the top 16 teams regardless of conference is the needed start. The league can take its time to figure out how much it values conferences and divisions later, while making sure the playoff bracket is as good as it has ever been.
In years past, hypothetical top-16 brackets posed far too many travel concerns to be taken seriously. First-round matchups featuring teams playing in East Rutherford and Phoenix or Orlando and Los Angeles seemed to be the tipping point, but this time around the travel doesn’t look all that terrifying.
Charlotte and Miami would be stricken from the current lineup in favor of New Orleans and Oklahoma City, with the Thunder and Warriors playing a rather mileage-heavy first round matchup that you’d already probably see in any Western postseason. Cross-conference matchups would include New Orleans taking on Atlanta (they should probably be in the same division anyway), Milwaukee taking on Memphis (they share a time zone), and two dicier ones in the Portland/Chicago and Los Angeles Clippers/Washington Wizards matchups.
With NBA first rounds already slated to spread out seven potential games in 14 days, seriously, these teams could pull it off.
The NBA has been around since the 1940s, and it has seen its fair share of tilted conferences and sub-mediocre teams making the playoffs from either side. The Chicago Bulls have made the playoffs with 33 and 29 wins while working in the Western Conference in the late 1960s, and they made the playoffs in 1986 with a 30-52 record while in the Eastern Conference. Conferences go back and forth on this.
For whatever confluence of damning reasons, scores of Eastern Conference general managers have been making terrible moves since the late 1990s, and while these transactions aren’t always as simple as pointing to Wes Unseld trading Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace for Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland (sorry, Washington) in a two-year span, things build up.
The two Eastern teams slated to miss the playoffs in this system, Miami and Charlotte, are helmed by well-respected basketball men like Pat Riley and Rich Cho. Still, Riley is playing three guys in their 30s (or, in Luol Deng’s case, about to turn 30) in Deng, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over $45 million to play basketball this year, with all three expectedly going down at times with injury. And Charlotte chose to win now with Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson, to mediocre (at best) returns.
Even if the cycle does turn over, and the West starts to only go about five or six deep, it hardly matters. The Eastern Conference’s depth has been shot to bits since Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls in 1999, and even though the East has produced five NBA champions since then, that doesn’t speak to the size of the tilt.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, the 48-win Suns missed the playoffs in 2014, but the 44-win SuperSonics and 45-win Rockets missed the postseason in 2001. Had the best 16 been sent to the playoffs in 2004, only four Eastern Conference teams would have made the playoffs. Just five in 2005, and just five in 2008 (with the 48-win Warriors sitting out). Just four in 2009 (46-win Phoenix Suns sit out, because who needs Steve Nash in his prime in the playoffs?), four in 2010, four in 2013, and just four in 2013.
Four teams out of 16, which means that this year’s uptick of six Eastern Conference teams is a sign of good things to come. The East is turning it around!
Big deal. Change the system.
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