How to Fix NBA's Broken Playoff Format in One Simple Step: Eliminate Conferences

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 1, 2015

AP Images

Is everyone ready for another postseason in which deserving NBA teams are left watching from home while inferior squads get to participate?  

This season, we'll likely be robbed of a playoff series involving Anthony Davis, who would have an opportunity to build on an historic season by taking down a Western Conference favorite.

If the New Orleans Pelicans do somehow sneak in, it will be at the expense of Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Beyond that, the surging Utah Jazz have no shot at admission, and the same is true for the Phoenix Suns. 

Mar 28, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) attempts to box out Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (34) during the first half at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons are all battling it out for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference. All seven of those candidates have lost more games than they've won, as of March 31. They're playoff contenders not because they're great teams, but because they play in the right cities. 

A majority of NBA executives are aware this is a serious problem, per ESPN.com's Chris Broussard: 

Chris Broussard @Chris_Broussard

36 of 59 NBA execs & coaches polled said its time for playoff realignment. Of the 23 against making a change, 19 were in the East.

But this disparity is nothing new.

There are arguments claiming that the nature of conference strength is cyclical, but those fly in the face of the facts. Maybe the NBA's halves balance out and alternate holding the torch, but it's not quickly enough for it to actually matter. In fact, the East has been the least balanced since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls disbanded in the late 1990s. 

One of many ways to see this is by looking at the average win percentage needed to make the playoffs in each conference over the last few decades:

LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers kept things close a few years ago, but now we're back to the same old problem. Just look at how long it's been since the East was superior in these different measures:

When Did the East Last Win?
CategoryMost Recent WinWin Before That
Win Percentage2008-091998-99
Win Percentage of Playoff Teams1996-971995-96
Most Wins by a Non-Playoff Team2001-021999-00
David Liss' data

This is a problem. 

How We Got Here

When the NBA contracted before the 1950-51 season, the league dropped down to 11 teams. They were spaced out across the United States, with the Eastern Conference represented by blue and the West by red. (Editor's note: Specific arena locations are not given, but rather the center of the cities in which the franchises played.) 

Of course conferences made sense!

They were actually grouped according to geography and quite close together, which allowed teams to spend less time traveling when on the road. Mind you, this was well before luxury jets, when road and train travel ruled the day. 

But take a look at the distribution of teams in the Eastern and Western conferences during the 2014-15 season: 

For the most part, teams are still grouped into conferences for geographical reasons. 

The expansion of the NBA, both in volume and in mileage, has made for huge distances between franchises, even franchises in the same conference. In theory, the Portland Trail Blazers and Pelicans could meet in the postseason as conference foes. Same goes for the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat.

As a result, the travel argument no longer flies. It's easier for teams to charter flights these days, rather than hauling the players from one location to another on a literal road trip. Take it from Gail Goodrich, who explained one of the major differences between his playing days in the pre-merger NBA and today's league for Jonathan Abrams and Grantland in 2013: 

I remember one trip early in my career, there was a snowstorm in New York and we were coming from Los Angeles. We had to land in Toledo, spend the night there, then get up the next morning and take a train to New York. We got there an hour before game time and played that night.

Now they go commercial and probably don’t even touch their bags. We had to carry our own bags — not only that, but if you were a rookie, you had to carry the bag of balls. You had to take six balls to practice and pregame then. And then, Elgin [Baylor] had his hydrocollator for his knees. If you’re a rookie, you had to carry that as well.

We had two rookies, so one of us carried the hydrocollator. One of us carried the practice balls. We’d check them. You’d get it at baggage claim, then you’d be responsible for it — take it to the hotel, take it to the trainer. You’d give it to the trainer at the hotel or you’d be responsible to take it to the game

And Goodrich played long after conferences were first established, which happened when players were taking a bus from one arena to another. 

To his credit, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver isn't leaning back on this outdated reasoning that centers on travel schedules. Instead, he's already admitted that he'd be amenable to significant changes. 

"Ultimately, we want to see your best teams in the playoffs," he explained in early February, according to ESPN.com. "And there is an imbalance and a certain unfairness. ... A lot of owners have strong feelings on it, but I think it is an area where we need to make a change."


Who Makes the Playoffs? 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 03: Shot of game balls on court before game Seven of the Eastern Conference Playoffs between the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 3, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User express
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Last March, ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss explained how the NBA's current system can't possibly be a good thing for the NBA:

It would seem, though, that these rationales for inaction are penny wise and pound foolish, and the league would be smart to fight inertia here. "Long series featuring bad teams with inevitable results" is pretty much the opposite of how a sport should sell itself.

Sacrificing entertaining West teams for the sake of bad, doomed East teams likely isn't a good strategy for creating playoff memories and building the league. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System (SRS), which takes only point differential and strength of schedule into play, the playoffs should have featured far more teams from the West. Of the 16 best, only six played in the league's weaker half. This year, SRS shows that 11 of the top 16 are in the West, including each of the top four. 

Again, it's easy to claim that conference strength is cyclical, indicating the East will eventually rise high enough to make the eight-and-eight split reasonable once more. But how long are we willing to wait, especially when there's a proactive solution that—gasp—makes sense?

I'm not proposing anything as radical as using SRS to determine the playoff field, but let's at least put the 16 best records into the postseason festivities. SRS is a better way of determining team strength than a win-loss record, but victories have to mean something. Without conferences, we can do exactly that, and it also allows the matchups to become more beneficial to the teams that earned easier ones. 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 3: Mike Scott #32 of the Atlanta Hawks battles for position against Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2014 NBA playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 3, 2014 in In
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Three Western teams won more games than the Pacers last season, but it was the East's No. 1 seed that got the easiest matchup in the first round. Granted, the Hawks pushed them to seven games, but that's beside the point.

Shouldn't the 62-win San Antonio Spurs have earned the cupcake based on their regular-season exploits? Instead, they had to square off with a 49-win Dallas Mavericks squad, one that would have earned the No. 3 seed in the East. 

That doesn't seem particularly fair. And this year, it's even worse. 

The league-best Golden State Warriors is a team that deserves to be compared to the great teams of yesteryears, rather than the other 2014-15 contenders. But they will likely get to square off with the dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that would currently be fighting for the fourth spot in the East, even with all the injury woes they've suffered through.

Were conferences eliminated, the Warriors would have a cushy first-round matchup against whoever snuck in as the 16th-best squad in the league.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Jazz, who currently sit at No. 11 in the Western Conference, have the same record as the Celtics—the current favorites for No. 8 in the league's tougher half. 

So not only does eliminating conferences allow the best teams to earn their rightful spots in the playoffs and avoid allowing lame ducks in, but it also creates matchups that actually reward the top teams in proper fashion. Here's how this year's first-round battles would look under the hypothetical new rules, using point differential as a tiebreaker: 

Credit: BracketCloud.com

It's hard not to giggle with joy about that bracket.

The Cleveland Cavaliers no longer have an easy matchup in the first round. Instead, LeBron James has to square off with one of his old nemeses (Dirk Nowitzki), just for the right to play Golden State next. 

And not only are the first-round matchups quite interesting, but there's actually also the possibility of an NBA Finals clash between two of the best teams in the West. The Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies could play, but we could also see Memphis and the Houston Rockets go head-to-head in the final round. 

Eliminating conferences would have a few more major impacts. 

A New Schedule

Apr 2, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Johnson (7) guards New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks won 110-81. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Under the current format, each NBA team plays other squads within its own division four times during a season, each in-conference team either three or four times and each out-of-conference franchise twice—once at home and once on the road. When there's one half of the Association that's much stronger than the other, that creates some seriously imbalanced schedules. 

In fact, take a gander at the strength of schedule for each team in the league during the 2013-14 season, per Basketball-Reference.com. The Western Conference is in blue, while the East is red. 

Now, the same exercise for this current season, again per Basketball-Reference.com

How is that even remotely fair? 

The toughest schedule in the East was actually easier than the easiest schedule in the West last year, and it's only different now because the Warriors have been obliterating opponents and making their slate of opponents look falsely simple. This is the result of strong teams beating up on each other all season, all the while depressing records to far lower marks than they otherwise would have reached. 

Fortunately, we can get around this issue by having each team play a similar schedule.

Rather than segmenting things, have every NBA franchise play the other 29 on three separate occasions throughout the regular season. That does force the length of a season to expand by five games, but it also only allows the home and away games to make schedules easier or more difficult.

Some teams will inevitably luck into playing only one road contest against the stronger teams, but that's a necessary evil for the greater good of the league.

And even that factor doesn't matter as much as it once did, per ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh.

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 21:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with the fans after scoring during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Quicken Loans Arena on January 21, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Jazz 106-
Jason Miller/Getty Images

There's no way to completely level the playing field while keeping things close to the current 82-game slate, but this is as close as we can come.

(Shrinking to 58 games would allow each squad to have a home-and-away series against each of the other 29, but it's hard to see the owners giving up revenue from the dozen home games they'd lose. Similarly, having everyone play each other four times would force players to suit up 116 times, and they'd have to be concerned about injuries resulting from prolonged wear and tear.) 

Five extra games is a reasonable compromise, especially if it's accompanied by a shorter preseason and a longer All-Star break, which would allow for a similar number of back-to-backs.

Worried about rivalries? You shouldn't be. 

They'll still develop organically, as history dictates which teams get fired up for certain matchups. Recent battles have created a heated rivalry between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, even if nothing in the two teams' combined past would indicate they should be at each other's throats. The same is true of the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, as well as the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. 

With this new schedule and new playoff format, not only will rivalries be preserved, but All-Star snubs won't happen as frequently. The imbalance between conferences won't make it seem as if the Western omissions could beat the Eastern starters—as has been the case each of the last two years. 

And, of course, the playoff field only improves.

When a lackluster squad from the East sneaks into the postseason at the expense of a strong Western unit that has the misfortune of playing in the wrong conference, just remember how much better the system could be.

You could be watching Anthony Davis instead of the star-less Celtics, for example. You could be seeing Russell Westbrook with a legitimate chance of avoiding the juggernaut from Oracle Arena. You may even get to see Rudy Gobert swatting shots and further building his rising-star status.

The same applies with gripes about All-Star snubs, assuming they exist in the future (they certainly will), as well as the inevitable complaints that some schedules are so significantly harder than others. 

The NBA is already a great league, but it would be even better with this one big change. 

Note: All stats and records, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into March 31's games.


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