Without getting too far into detail, there are three problems that plague the NBA and equate to a lesser level of play on the court.
1-Teams tanking towards the end of the regular season, so they can improve their odds of getting a high draft pick.
2- Teams coasting/ resting their players, because health takes precedence over home court advantage heading into the playoffs.
3-The gap between the first seed and the eighth seed in the playoffs is typically so wide (this season the avg was 14.5 among 66 games, equating to a 21 percent curve) that it almost invites teams to underachieve.
Therefore, logistically, the easiest thing to do to solve these three problems and sustain the high level of competition throughout the entire season is to trim the fat.
Now, from a cost-benefit analysis, most people would probably agree that there is more of a business incentive than a basketball one to have an eighth seed in the playoffs.
After all, when you factor that only four teams have actually defeated a top seed since 1984, when the current playoff format first existed, against the near financial loss the NBA would have incurred as early as this season had the New York Knicks not made the playoffs (they finished one game ahead of the eighth seeded 76ers after winning their last game of the season), one side clearly outweighs the other.
Just to tip the scales further, two basic arguments you could make to underscore the superfluousness of having an eighth seed in the playoffs are:
1) The 2003 format change that altered the first round from a best of five series to a best of seven series should translate to the reduced likelihood of an upset.
2) Two of the four aforementioned upsets could be considered aberrational considering that one of them occurred in a lockout shortened season, while the other, which took place last year, was influenced by Manu Ginobili suffering from an elbow injury. (As a side note, people will make this exact point if the Bulls are upset by the 76ers this season).
Taking this into account, there yet remains a compelling argument on why the removal of an eighth seed and the invocation of first-round byes for top seeded teams would improve the league from a competitive and financial standpoint.
On the basketball side, the removal of an eighth seed would mean:
1) Two extra teams would need to be included among the lottery teams, thereby reducing the percentage odds of teams across a 16-way lottery and further deterring teams from tanking.
2) The intensity of competition among the lower level playoff teams would rise, as more "middle of the road" teams would end up in the lottery instead of the postseason, unlike today's status quo.
Meanwhile, the incentive of having a first-round bye for top seeded teams would enable franchises that normally preserve their health for the playoffs to receive it once they get there.
Now, on the business side, having two less top markets in the playoffs would be costly.
But, as a long time fan of the sport, I would think that the overall improved quality of play that should result from this format adjustment would generate more fans and equate to more dollars for the NBA.
Especially considering, well, how many fans of a franchise are really going to tune in to the playoffs given the odds of an eighth seed actually making it far.
Okay, I realize this may sound way too radical and you may be thinking aloud, "Why fix something if it ain't broken?"
Here's my answer.
If the NBA has proven anything over the years, it's that mainstream viewers tune in more for the players than for the teams.
Which is why fans have always been so loyal to the league, despite the 17 rule changes to the playoffs which have been enacted in its 65 year existence.
At the end of the day, the billion dollar question David Stern needs to ask himself is this:
Would the average fan from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles be just as inclined to tune into the NBA playoffs just to watch the superstars of other teams compete as they would to watch their own teams play?
I say yes. And if you do as well, maybe you'll give this format adjustment more consideration than you did at first glance.