In 2015, the NBA made a minor change to its playoff structure, eliminating the automatic top-four seed for all division winners. The league decided that rewarding a lesser team for playing in a weaker division makes no sense. Why would rewarding a team from a weaker conference, or penalizing a team from a tougher conference for that matter, be any different?
The idea of going to a straight 1-16 playoff seeding has moved to the forefront of NBA fans discussions ever since the Warriors pushed the already superior Western Conference to a whole new level.
The Western Conference is stacked. The Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins. The Rockets are doing everything they can to keep up with the Warriors, including trying to sign Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder re-signed Paul George. The Pelicans still have Anthony Davis and added Julius Randle. The Trail Blazers and Timberwolves both have young rosters that have the potential to be competitive for years to come. The Nuggets are poised to make a playoff run and the Suns have built a team that will contend this season.
To top it all off, LeBron James, the only player that made the East relevant for the past eight seasons, is now a Laker.
Meanwhile, only two teams in the East (Boston and Philly) have a realistic shot at playing a competitive Finals against any of the top five seeds in the West. Toronto has not proven that they can win in the postseason, but could get added to that list if they land Kawhi without giving up half of their roster (Update: they did just that.).
Other than the Bucks, Wizards and Pacers the rest of the Eastern Conference is awful. The race for the seventh and eighth seeds in the East this season could easily be between three or four teams with 35 to 37 wins.
This is in stark contrast to the Western Conference who had a team that was 10 wins over .500 miss the playoffs entirely this past season.
That being said, there are still a number of NBA executives in favor of keeping the format the way it is. Let’s examine their three biggest arguments.
The Cyclical Argument
People are always quick to say it’ll eventually turn around and the East will be the better conference. However, when it comes down to it, what difference would that make? The league would continue to have the same problem just in reverse. The pendulum of NBA competitiveness would never balance right in the middle unless they change it to a straight 1-16 playoff format.
The Rivalry Argument
For starters, eliminating conferences wouldn’t eliminate regional rivalries entirely. The possibility of the Lakers matching up with the Clippers in the playoffs, for instance, is still in play.
Besides, the new-age fan wants to see the best players play against one another. Players change teams all the time, and the intrigue of the particular matchups they define goes with them. For instance, not nearly as many people are going to watch the Cavaliers play the Warriors this season now that LeBron James is gone.
Even from a traditional standpoint, the most storied rivalry in NBA history, Lakers-Celtics, is, in fact, an inter-conference rivalry.
The Travel Argument
This is the biggest obstacle in changing the playoff format. Commissioner Adam Silver said it best:
“I’ve said in the past, the obstacle is travel, and it’s not tradition in my mind, at least. It’s that as we’ve added an extra week to the regular season, as we’ve tried to reduce the number of back-to-backs, that we are concerned about teams crisscrossing the country in the first round, for example. We are just concerned about the overall travel that we would have in the top 16 teams”.
This is a valid point. That’s a lot of time in an airplane at the end of an exhausting NBA season. Although, Charles Barkley pointed out at All-Star weekend:
“If Bill Russell and Dr. J and those guys can play three games in three nights in the worst tennis shoes ever invented, and fly commercial, or ride a bus, I think these guys can be inconvenienced a couple days a year to make $30 million and ride on a private jet.”
There are plenty of people that side with Barkley, but in my opinion, there is an easier fix. Change the series format back to a 2-3-2 instead of the 2-2-1-1-1 in place today. This eliminates two travel days entirely.
Yes, the higher-seeded team could lose out on a home game and the money that game would generate, if it won a series in five games, as Game 5 would be on the road rather than back home. However, in the grand scheme of things, if it means a more competitive league, NBA Owners should be more than willing to make that sacrifice.
Will this actually happen?
Yes, but it might take a while. There’s too much momentum starting to gather behind the idea. Fans and players are excited about the possibility for new matchups throughout every round of the playoffs, in addition to the ultimate goal of having the two best teams square off in the Finals.
Now, to make this completely fair, the league can’t just change the playoff structure; it must change the regular-season schedule, too. Right now, teams play three or four games against each team in their own conference, and two games against the opposite. It’s not exactly equitable to seed teams 1-16 when half those teams had a considerably easier path to earning those seeds.
This is where it gets tricky, but the opportunity to fix this issue will arise when the league eventually expands again (most likely Seattle). They can alter the schedule without losing revenue because of the extra revenue coming in from the new team or teams entering the league.
The NBA is the most progressive professional sports league. Over the past 4 years, it has changed its lottery structure to stop rewarding tanking. It changed its All-Star Game selection process to make it more appealing to fans. It stopped the practice of giving teams homecourt advantage in the playoffs after winning weaker divisions.
The playoff structure is next. It will just take some time.