Last week, NBA Twitter was all abuzz about abolishing conferences thanks to Zach Lowe’s excellent article on the subject. Like the great self-promoter I am, I decided to wait until everyone was their normal amount of pissed off before writing some thoughts on conference abolition. IGHN is a site dedicated to self-sabotage, so I wouldn’t want to write anything about a subject while it’s hot.
To summarize the basic issue for anyone who hasn’t paid attention, the Western Conference is a lot better than the Eastern Conference.
The sixth seed (Spurs, 16-6) in the West has the same record as the first seed in the East (Raptors, 16-6). The seventh seed in the West (Mavs, 17-7) would be the fourth seed in the East, and I suspect their record will end up better than the current Eastern Conference second seed (Hawks, 15-6) and third seed (Wizards, 15-6) before the season is over.
I also suspect the two teams expected to be at the top of the East, Cleveland and Chicago, will probably end up at the top. There is a lot of season to be played, so things very much will change. But to think that it’s possible that seven teams in the West could have better records than any team in the East, well that’s just scary. It probably won’t happen because things will even out as more East teams play East teams and West teams play West teams, but it’s possible.
And even that isn’t why some in the NBA community want to abolish conferences. They want to abolish conferences because last year the Suns missed the playoffs with 48 wins in the West and the Hawks got into the playoffs with 38 wins in the East. Because three teams in the West this year (Kings, Pelicans, and Denver) have a better record than the eighth seed in the East. Hell, the Kings would be the sixth seed in the East.
That’s a problem, but it isn’t even the entire problem. The problem is threefold:
1. Records don’t reflect the disparity in its entirety.
For as bad as the records look already, the disparity is bigger than they show. This is a pretty simple point. West teams mostly play West teams. East teams mostly play East teams. West teams are better than East teams. Put all this together, and West teams play a much more difficult schedule than East teams.
2. We don’t get to see the most competitive playoffs possible.
Given the previous point, maybe the records would play out differently if the conference situation were “fixed,” but let’s assume for a second that last year’s records were an accurate depiction of how good every team in the NBA actually was (they weren’t). If Commissioner Silver decided on the last day of the season to abolish conferences last year, the only difference in WHO made the playoffs would be the Suns getting into the playoffs instead of the Hawks. That really isn’t enough to change an entire system if this were the only reason to be upset.
The real sports tragedy is that the playoff seeding didn’t make for the most competitive playoffs possible. Now, top seeds in the East were always going to destroy lower seeds. That’s an inevitability, but very good teams like the Rockets, the Mavericks, the Grizzlies and the Warriors all got kicked out of the first round in the West while lesser teams in the East made it to the second round. This isn’t so much about the first round, which is insanely exciting in the West. It’s about providing a chance for the best teams in the entire NBA to play as long as possible.
The upside, too, is the middle of a 16 team bracket could be just as if not more exciting than a bracket with the conferences divided. I usually hate anyone who does this, but let’s look at what some of the match ups would be like if the playoffs started today:
4 Clippers versus 13 Suns
5 Rockets versus 12 Bulls
6 Raptors versus 11 Cavs
7 Spurs versus 10 Mavs
8 Hawks versus 9 Wizards
Those are some pretty fun match ups, and that’s without considering that both Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis would grab two of the final three seeds, so we would be able to get to see those young stars play, which is cool even if their team will get destroyed.
Still, the biggest upside as that as the rounds progress, we truly get to see the best of the best face each other. I’m all for this, and I’m a Cavs fan. It doesn’t benefit me personally at all.
3. Mediocre East teams make the playoffs, missing out on the lottery. Good West teams miss the playoffs, making the lottery.
One of the benefits of being in the West is teams get to try harder and still get lottery picks. They get to try harder, but all the teams are so good, their records are artificially worse than the team really is.
It’s something that builds on itself. In the East, as soon as a team is a little good, it makes the playoffs because making the playoffs is easy. This puts a ceiling on the team’s assets and potential to get better. In the West, teams don’t have to attempt to bottom out as much. They can actually try to get better and still build assets because the West is so tough.
It isn’t the entire reason why there is a disparity. It isn’t even close to the entire reason. It’s a small part of it, but it defeats the purpose of the lottery. It would be nice if that were fixed.
The hard part is in fixing this whole mess. “Just get rid of conferences” is an easy thing to say, but not as easy to do. Since one of the biggest issues is making the schedules more even so records actually reflect the strength of each team, who plays who and how many times becomes the biggest pitfall.
In Lowe’s article, he talks a lot about this issue, wondering at the realities of a schedule where every team plays every other team three times (for a mammoth 87 games) or two times (a snug 58 games).
Either seems like too drastic of a change, and I would have to agree. Luckily, the NBA has already set a precedent for the middle ground. Teams already don’t play every team in their own conferences the same amount of times. Some inner-conference teams they play four times and some three times. I see no reason why the schedule can’t be divided where a team plays some teams three times and some two times.
The NBA already doesn’t worry about schedules being fair or even. With this change, they would get closer to fair than they ever have been before. Conferences helped to obscure that the schedules weren’t anywhere approaching fair, so complaining about the format I propose seems more like a complaint about the visibility of uneven schedules than an actual complaint about uneven schedules.
It can even be roughly down the middle with 15 three gamers and 14 two gamers. That would come out to a total of 73 games. There are ways to get it up to 82 games if they want, but I have a better idea.
That leeway of nine fewer regular season games would allow the NBA to effectively extend the playoffs. They could lock in the top eight seeds and let the entire rest of the NBA play a single elimination tournament to get into the first round. How teams place in the tournament would decide the order of the final eight seeds.
What I like about this is it would bring the danger and excitement and hope of the playoffs to every single city every single season. And you better believe in a playoff-type game, the higher seeds in the tournament would feel pretty safe — at least in the first round. Is there any way the Wizards would lose a playoff game to the Sixers? I doubt it, but I also want to find out.
The lottery can work the same as it does now. Top sixteen regular season records aren’t in the lottery, and the next fourteen are. If a non-lottery team loses its first round spot to a lottery team in this tournament, that’s on them. Good for the team that knocked them out plus got a lottery pick.
Lowe’s article also worries about the loss of playoff revenue, and the tournament would fix that issue, too. If an Eastern Conference team usually made the playoffs in a two conference world but doesn’t have a top sixteen record in the NBA, it’s still probably a mid-to-upper seed in the tournament. It will probably go a few rounds before it gets eliminated. How different is that from playing two first round games and getting swept? At least here, there’s the off-hand hope that it can sneak into the first round with a good showing in the tournament.
The upper seeds also get a week or two of rest that should serve them well and counteract the increase in travel throughout the playoffs.
There’s always a way to nay say the clearly better solution for not being perfect, and I would guess that’s what the NBA is going to do with conference abolition. Sports leagues are allergic to reform that is a grand departure from what came before it. As grand a departure as this change would be, we are still talking about basketball. A bunch of dudes will still be playing basketball.
I just want it to be both more fair and more exciting. I’m not saying anything new here. A lot of what I said, Lowe said better in his own article, which you hopefully read before mine. It’s about time the NBA gets rid of conferences, and the more people who say it, the better.