Given the assumption that a professional sports league is not supposed to have a junior varsity, the enormous ongoing imbalance of NBA power would seem to be a problem in need of a solution.
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, fresh off a 48-win season that left his team in the lottery while the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason in the weaker Eastern Conference, suggested a league study.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has pledged to at least discuss the issue. His predecessor, David Stern, had dismissed the problem as nothing more than a cyclical phenomenon. The logic is imperfect at best: franchises are treated unfairly, but at least both conferences are subject to injustice eventually.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has a different take than Cuban.
He doesn’t care. Never has.
Morey says it's someone else’s problem. And if it becomes his problem, the current conference system won't be his main concern.
But Morey says all the talk about very good Western Conference teams being left out of the playoffs while pretty bad Eastern Conference teams advance ignores that those Western Conference teams are probably not good enough, anyway.
“It maybe sounds like we shouldn’t be talking like this because we haven’t won (a championship) in a few years in Houston, but I’m just worried about winning a championship,” he said. “You have to be one of the top teams, anyway.
“I don’t worry about it that much. I worry about obviously getting in the playoffs, which is obviously harder right now in the West. But I worry mostly about being one of the top teams in the league. If you do that, things are usually pretty good in basketball. Generally, the top teams are the ones that advance and have a chance to win a title.
“If you’re just eking into the playoffs, you’re probably not going to win the championship, anyway, which is what we’re focused on.”
This could be a short-sighted view, Morey admits. Accepting the status quo is problematic for several reasons.
NBA teams sell hope, which rarely comes from landing the 14th pick of the draft.
They don’t just sell that to customers. A playoff team can be viewed as a team on the rise, having escaped whatever stigma is attached to sitting on that draft lottery stage at halftime of the playoff game between other teams.
After the Rockets slipped into the 2013 playoffs as an eighth seed, winning two games before being eliminated in the first round, they signed Dwight Howard as a free agent that offseason and sold out 40 home dates the next season.
Howard might have signed on to play with James Harden and a very young, growing roster, anyway. The Rockets might have had their sellouts because of his decision. But the Rockets had an image as a team for him to consider in part because they were viewed as good enough to be in the playoffs and win a few games.
The current system may actually perpetuate the cycle of imbalance. An eighth seed might not usually be a title contender, but injuries make this a possibility. The Rockets have the talent to compete for a championship, but injuries to core players such as Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones could relegate the Rockets to bubble-team status.
And consider the Oklahoma City Thunder, which has fallen into a deep hole largely because of the injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With the loss to New Orleans on Tuesday, the Thunder were 5-13 and would have to go 45-9 the rest of the way to reach the 50 wins it could take to make the Western Conference playoffs.
If they, let’s say, go 42-12 the rest of the season, the Thunder would absolutely look like a championship-worthy team. They would also likely be in the lottery, while an East team (or two, or three) that would be swept by Oklahoma City in a playoff series moves on and misses the lottery.
It's a problem, but the league does not have many good solutions.
Cuban’s idea might be a short-term solution, but once the league starts reacting, when does it stop? Does it determine the relative strengths of its teams every year and alter conferences? Every three, five years?
Ranking teams one through 16 in a playoff bracket with no conference affiliations doesn't factor in Eastern Conference teams' easier schedules.
In place of a system unfair to middling teams, a straight bracket might stack the deck against third, fourth and fifth seeds. And how does a first-round Atlanta-Portland series sound to those criss-crossing the country who might advance to play a second-round series against the winner of a Dallas-Houston series?
Morey’s point might not argue that there is not a problem. For too long, the league has had too many bad teams on one side of the league. But if the league cannot fix the obvious problem, Morey’s perspective might be the only path to sanity.
Jonathan Feigen covers the Houston Rockets for Bleacher Report and the Houston Chronicle.