The beauty of the NBA is that it is unafraid of change. It is a league at the forefront of many of the best things in professional sports – diversity, globalization, charity, teamwork, marketing and technology.
It is a league that evaluates scenarios, studies and usually changes for the better. It moved the three-point line in, saw that was a mistake and changed it back. The league allowed the zone defense and produced a better product. The league experimented with a new composite ball and then returned to leather. The introduction of an age minimum, I believe, was a step forward for more polished players (i.e. Brandon Roy) coming into the league. To fill the gap for players who may not be best suited for college, the Developmental League is a good option that only improves every year.
Unfortunately, the one major gap in this tremendous sport of professional basketball is in defining its champion. When the sport is supposed to be at its zenith in terms of interest, intensity and quality of play, I feel that the NBA shoots an airball.
Now, this is not only an NBA problem. Sports like college football have had questionable methods of determining champions for years. The problem arises primarily from failing to match up the quality teams in an effort to ultimately decide which team is best. The history of college football is littered with teams that feasted on lesser competition, built up a bloated won-loss record and laughably were "voted" a top team – a "mythical" national champion indeed.
Fortunately, the NBA has a regular season that could easily determine the quality of a ballclub. Once the various team strengths are ascertained, a championship tournament could be easily implemented. And surprisingly, the methodology doesn't have to be so shockingly different.
There are two incredibly unfortunate aspects of the regular season in the NBA. One is that the visiting team loses 60 percent of all regular season games. This is the biggest disparity in any of the four major sports. The other is that the Western Conference has become so dominant that any type of playoff system that doesn't acknowledge this truism is flawed.
Now, one look at an NBA team's schedule gives you a good idea why road teams rarely win. Tons of travel, back-to-back games, and four games in five nights in multiple time zones all take its toll on the traveling team's play. Having broadcast NBA games for 15 years, I can tell you that I am physically beaten up on these trips, and I am only required to speak to perform my job.
Players endure physical hardship and injury during a season (more than 300 players have missed a total of 4,400 games each of the past two seasons) and this is despite being some of the best conditioned athletes in the world. Having players perform at less than their best is not good for fans, the quality of play, games being broadcast and competition in general.
All of this can be addressed by adjusting the "conference" setup in the NBA. This has happened in the league's history several times and teams like Chicago and Milwaukee were once even in the Western Conference.
Fortunately, the NBA's current regionally-based six-division setup would still work. However, rather than having the six divisions placed within two conferences, it would make more sense to have them broken into three conferences - West, Central and East. To view how the league's two conferences are currently set up, click here. To see how my proposed three-conference setup would look like, click here.
Now, the hypothetical team schedule (let's use the Warriors) is slightly different but much better for travel, television broadcasts, fans attending road games and development of regular season rivalries.
Currently, the Warriors play each Eastern Conference team twice (home and away). They would continue to do exactly the same thing under this suggested format. Ten Eastern Conference teams would result in 20 regular season games for the Warriors.
Currently, the Warriors play teams such as San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Memphis four times (sometimes three). That is the same number of times they play the Sacramento Kings, Lakers and Clippers, which should be their divisional and geographic rivals. This makes no sense from a travel perspective and the time zone change doesn't work well for local television broadcasts either. Create a Central Conference and play each of the 10 Central teams twice, which would add 20 more regular season games.
Now for the Western Conference opponents, which would require much less travel, far fewer time zone issues and much closer geographic proximity. Again, using the Warriors schedule, they would play the non-division teams in the conference (the Mountain Division) four times each (20 games) and play the four division opponents (the Pacific) five times each (20 games).
This results in an 80-game schedule (once the amount of the league season), much less travel, better rest and health for players, better local TV broadcasting opportunities, the nurturing of geographic rivalries and familiarity with nearby opponents (think Red Sox/ Yankees). The change to three conferences and adjustment of the schedule is quite easy. Even in the event that economics dictated staying with an 82-game schedule, just rotate one non-conference (home and away) opponent randomly on a yearly basis.
So now for the postseason championship tournament, or playoffs. Much of the current format still works very well. Seven-game series truly decide the best teams and 16 playoff qualifiers is exactly the right number. Seeding teams is absolutely necessary. Using regular season records for seeding and home court is appropriate. And charter air travel has made frequency of games much easier. I would also suggest the 2-3-2 format currently used for the Finals to be in place for all series. This minimizes travel.
However, the Eastern/ Western Conference format, selecting eight teams from each conference just absolutely fails in identifying the best 16 teams in the NBA. Over the past eight years, the Western record vs. Eastern teams is as follows:
Season West Record Vs. East
That totals for a 2,257-1,643 record for the Western Conference, a .579 winning percentage. Additionally, the Western Champion has won the NBA Championship 7 of the past 9 years, with many of the series not very competitive. For the first time in history, all eight Western Conference playoff qualifiers won 50 games, while the Eastern Conference could only field five out of 15 teams that even finished with a winning record. Ten Western teams finished with winning records against the East and only three Eastern teams had winning records against the West. Ten of the best 16 regular season records came from Western Conference teams.
This is all despite the fact that Eastern teams play 52 games against lesser competition and only 30 games against the West. While I don't advocate relying on computer rankings, the Sagarin rankings (using won-loss record and strength of schedule) essentially show that 10 of the top 16 teams in the NBA are from the Western Conference.
The point is not to eliminate Eastern teams from the playoffs, but rather identify the best 16 teams in the league and seed them accordingly in a 16-team bracket to best determine the true NBA champion. The current format is the equivalent of Western teams being required to run a marathon while teams from the East are running a 100-yard dash to win a title.
Understand, there will never and should never be a balanced schedule. There will be year-to-year vagaries in the three-conference setup and certainly divisional strength issues. But a 16-team playoff bracket is a vast improvement over the current system and would be the most equitable way to select and seed postseason qualifiers. Remember, the goal is to have the best teams playing for the NBA title and an equitable seeding process.
Start with all six division winners making the playoffs. And then the next 10 best regular season records, regardless of location. Seed the teams 1-16 based on regular season records, make out an NBA Championship bracket, play seven-game series and use the 2-3-2 format to mitigate travel concerns.
Using this year's regular season records, 10 teams out of the current West would have qualified and 6 from the East (almost eight and eight) but it's the seedings and road to a title that would have looked dramatically different. Remember, the six division winners get the top 6 seeds and then the next 10 best records regardless of location. Also, with the 2-3-2 format, there would actually be LESS travel during the playoffs.
Feel free to fill out your bracket and prognosticate on a potential champion, but for the first time the NBA would actually be allowing the best 16 teams to compete for the title, properly bracketed based on their regular season accomplishments.
Final thought - If I hear one more time that "well they don't play a balanced schedule", I am going to lose it. Think about it - if Eastern teams play 52 games in a much easier conference and STILL can't have one of the best 16 records in the league, WHY do they deserve a postseason slot just based on geography? Answer - They don't.
This article was originally published as part of the Fitz Files blog on Warriors.com. It is reproduced with permission from the author, Bob Fitzgerald, who has spent more than a decade as the television play-by-play voice of the Golden State Warriors.