In three weeks, an NBA team in the Western Conference will finish the season just a few wins short of 50 games, and also a game or two short of the NBA playoffs. It will watch as two different sub-.500 teams will make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and it will rue the fact that its record would have earned it the third seed in that particular conference had it been allowed to perform out East.
The Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are fighting for the two bottom playoff berths in the Western Conference, and one of these very good teams will lose out, while several mediocre teams in the East will lose in. The Atlanta Hawks currently own the final spot in the East’s playoff bracket, but they’ve also lost 19 of 25 games, and are working without their best player in center Al Horford. The Toronto Raptors, designed to tank the season, will probably win their division. Chicago will have home court advantage despite playing without Derrick Rose and also Luol Deng, who was traded midseason for no compensation. Things aren’t even.
Worse teams have made the playoffs. Various low end basketball clubs with win totals in the mid and even low 30s have found themselves in the postseason throughout the NBA’s history, and even at their current rate the Hawks stand to have a better season than most of these teams. Still, for various reasons that can’t be eliminated with one swift rule change, we’re in our fifteenth year of the Western Conference looking over at the Eastern standings with a furrowed brow, and something needs to change. Quite a few things need to change.
Personally, I’ve been against eliminating conferences and just ranking playoff teams 1-through-16 because the idea of a first round series that pitched Phoenix against a team on the Eastern Seaboard seemed like too much of a hassle for all involved. Travel, in that seven game series, could burden players as they shuffle back and forth in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, hamstringing what could be a two month slog through the playoffs from the outset.
The NBA has turned the first round into a lengthy battle in recent years, though. As currently constructed, a conference-less playoff bracket’s worst first round matchup in terms of travel would be Chicago versus the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, a two-hour time difference with half a country between the two teams, but frustrations like these might be worth it if only to get the NBA’s best product on the floor. To get Kevin Love in the playoffs. To give Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry the lottery pick he so badly wants.
If the league spaced out the playoffs, the travel might not seem as onerous. Sure, some would complain about the length of the NBA season going on even longer, but those types don’t really watch many NBA games. The 82-game schedule isn’t changing, which is a good thing – there are 30 teams, plenty of money to make, history books to mind, and we want to see Indiana and Miami play four times in a season. What does need to be amended is the schedule.
The NFL has done itself a huge service by placing a nearly three month chunk between its Super Bowl and draft, it has pushed its championship game farther and farther back, and its exhibition season earlier and earlier. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see lead stories about the NFL on cable sports shows throughout the 12-month calendar. The NBA will never be able to touch the NFL in terms of popularity, the league’s players aren’t violent enough, but it can learn from its ability to dominate a news cycle.
Cranks who complain about the NBA’s season-length don’t know that the league actually used to begin its regular season play in the second week of October. It’s true that a smaller playoff format used to result in the championship round being played where today’s first round sits, but there is nothing wrong with gearing for NBA basketball (that counts) at around the same time MLB’s playoffs are taking shape. There’s enough room for all. We have Tivos, tablets, and online feeds both legal and illegal, now.
This puts training camps and the league’s tour around foreign countries in September, which is no big deal in the slightest. Take it from someone who writes about the league for a living – September is the NBA’s dead month. It’s when I read an actual book. It’s when I give exercise a try. It’s when I pay attention to my family. This needs to stop.
Moving the start of the NBA season to an earlier time frame would allow for an extended All-Star break for players to catch their breath, as was discussed in February, and it would help lighten the playoff load should the NBA abolish conferences and go to a 1-through-16 format in the playoffs. The conference schedule should stay in place during the regular season, we still want to see Houston and Dallas play each other four times a year, but once the regular season ends the anachronistic setup needs to hit the bricks.
Following that Finals run, the league then needs to push its draft back a few weeks into July, away from the Finals that just ended a day before. This allows for a greater buildup, better scouting and potential draft day dealing (which fans and media eat up), and more coverage. The free agency period would then be moved back, which would keep the rumor mongering at a fever pitch deeper into summer.
And it would put the damn Phoenix Suns or Dirk Nowitzki or Marc Gasol in the playoffs, too.
Altering the NBA landscape because of a 15-year trend in the league’s 67-year history seems like a bit of a rash move, but even if the 76ers, Celtics, Hawks, Raptors, Cavaliers and Magic follow through on their rebuilding plans, this seems like the way to go. Even if the Bucks, Cavs and Knicks finally get it together. Even if Derrick Rose comes back at an MVP level. This can be pulled off, and it should stick around even if things eventually balance between the two conferences.
It would allow for a more rested batch of players, it would create a longer news cycle for all the NBA’s tangential parts to feed off of, and it would allow Adam Silver to put a stamp on the league that would rival the previous two inhabitants of the commissioner’s office.
The NBA has never been averse to change. Let’s keep that tradition alive.
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