A Modest Proposal
April 15, 2014 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
As we come to the end of the NBA regular season for 2013-14 and look forward to what promises to be an exceptionally high-level and competitive playoffs, fans should marvel at how entertaining it's been.
Based on league-wide averages as of Monday, the NBA is averaging 93.9 possessions a game and 100.9 points per game per team. It's been since 1995 that teams played that fast and since 1994 that they scored more.
The West, even in the Lakers-Spurs era of the early 2000s, has never been quite this strong or compelling. Out East, a season-long battle for home-court advantage has been nearly as strong and contributed to the league's best team rivalry, despite both clubs' fumbles in the final weeks. In addition to the top two seeds in each conference, Doc Rivers' Clippers look like a serious title contender. You could also make something of a case for Houston, depending on how effective Patrick Beverley is.
Coupled with the fact that so many teams play team-oriented basketball, and that the biggest names in the league are as marketable and likable as ever, the NBA is in about as good a position as it has ever been. But where the regular season has been one of the best in memory, it's also exposed some flaws in the league's structure that could use some tweaking. And with new commissioner Adam Silver saying that he wants to challenge the NFL's seat on the American sports throne, it's time to think outside of the box.
Tanking is the problem that gets the most attention, and is something I've written about in this space this season. And even though teams like the 76ers depleting their rosters to the point of absurdity has the unacceptable consequence of messing up competitiveness, we're still dealing with levels of bad. Would Philadelphia have lost 26 games in a row with Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner? Certainly not. But they may have only won 4-6 with them, or shut them down with "injuries." In any case, the Sixers were never going to be a playoff team this year.
However, the league's conference system does unequivocally mean that one of the league's 16 best teams will not make the playoffs.
After Monday night's thriller in Phoenix between the Suns and Grizzlies, the playoff field is set. The Suns, who defied all odds in a season in which they were supposed to be languishing with the Jazz and the Kings in the standings, will finish the season with 47 or 48 wins.
No matter how you shake it, nearly winning 50 games is an accomplishment in the NBA, and especially in this year's Western Conference. For Phoenix to miss the playoffs with what would have been the third best record in the East, or very close to it, is pretty ridiculous.
The fix for this problem is pretty straightforward, and I'm far from the first to suggest it. Just do away with the conference playoffs, and seed everyone 1 to 16. In a one-season vacuum, this leaves us with the following for first round matchups, before Monday night's games:
1) San Antonio vs. 16) Charlotte
8) Golden State vs. 9) Dallas
5) Miami vs. 12) Chicago
4) Indiana vs. 13) Phoenix
6) Houston vs. 11) Toronto
3) Clippers vs. 14) Brooklyn
7) Portland vs. 10) Memphis
2) Oklahoma City vs. 15) Washington
And look at what we've done. On the whole, these matchups are even more compelling than the actual likely first-round slate. Also, just look at some of the incredible storylines we've set up. Miami/;Chicago round one? Struggling Indiana against Phoenix in a massive clash of styles? Miami/Indiana in round two?! The Clippers having to face the surging Nets right off the bat? The only two series that might be unwatchable from a competitiveness perspective are Spurs/Bobcats and Thunder/Wizards.
But the hypothetical 16-team bracket leads me to one big question: Does the NBA even need conferences or divisions for organizing or scheduling purposes?
I don't think anyone would particularly care if divisions were done away with pronto. After the schmozzle at the end of the 2006 season, which saw the Clippers throw a game to face 44-win Denver and get home-court in the first round as the No. 6 seed instead of facing 60-win Dallas, divisions hardly ever matter anymore for playoff seeding. Besides, whenever I see the Mavericks' 2007 "Southwest Division Champions" banner, all I inevitably remember is a 67-win team falling flat on its face against the Warriors in the first round.
But for conferences, there'd be an unquestionably harder sell. After all, if we're talking about banners, Eastern Conference and Western Conference celebrations would go by the wayside in favor of simple "Finals appearances." But that shouldn't be what we're talking about. We should be talking about competitive balance. And a 47-win team in one of the best conferences in NBA history not making the playoffs while a 37-win club in a bad conference strolls in definitely doesn't qualify.
My solution is to do away with all geographical constructs. I'd want the season to be shorter, but the league most certainly does not. Assuming an 82-game slate, each team would mostly play everyone else three times. Since playing everyone else three times would result in 87 games, exceptions would be made on a rotating basis or if teams finished on opposite ends of the standings.
Wish you could have seen Sunday's Thunder/Pacers game one more time in 2013-14? Under this plan, it happens. That's not even mentioning all the other inter-regional matchups that would get played an extra time, like Heat-Spurs, Heat-Thunder, and so on. For the league's TV deals, those extra games would be invaluable.
What about travel, you ask? Orlando going to Portland, or vice versa, won't be the cheapest or the shortest trip. But in case you haven't noticed, teams are making money more now than ever before. There's a reason that even the Bucks and Kings are getting sold for about $500 million a piece. Teams can afford a couple extra road trips in a season.
Regional rivalries would also lose one meeting a year. But how often is it that a rivalry comes about when the stakes haven't been high or a playoff series wasn't involved? Never. Four years ago, Miami was a middling East playoff team, and Indiana was off the map. Now, it's the best rivalry in the sport. A single-table system with mostly balanced scheduling would allow any number of new, unexpected rivalries to emerge due to the stakes.
All of this isn't to even mention that each team's record would be a more accurate representation of quality. Right now, Chicago and the Clippers have about the same record against their respective conferences. It's obvious that the two are not made alike.
This direction would be especially unique in North American pro sports. After realigning into four divisions for this season, the NHL has gone with a mostly division-based format for the first two rounds of the playoffs. MLB has teams play nearly half of their games against division foes.
But more so that those leagues, the NBA is a national sport driven by top teams and top players, and has been for quite some time. To its part, the NBA recognizes this fact in promoting big games. If it took the next step and did away with conferences and divisions, fans, teams and the competitive integrity of the league would all be better served.