This year's Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, a clash featuring two Larry O'Brien Trophy contenders, is so much more than an NBA Finals appetizer.
Stephen Curry will drain a plethora of three-pointers in the face of a stingy Houston Rockets defense. Chris Paul will dazzle defenders with his yo-yo handles and shooting prowess while avoiding the turnovers the Dubs will constantly try to force. James Harden will continue working to validate his status as an MVP front-runner by putting together memorable offensive performances, and Klay Thompson will try his darnedest to stop him from doing so.
And that's saying nothing of the series' many other notable figures. Clint Capela is emerging as one of the league's fastest-rising centers, and Draymond Green is a bona fide All-Star. We also can't forget about guys such as Andre Iguodala, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Shaun Livingston.
But again, this isn't just a battle between two loaded teams. It's not just two outfits engaging one another for the right to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. It's not just a skirmish featuring two unstoppable forces.
It's also the latest example of why the NBA needs to alter the playoff format and do away with conferences during the most important part of the calendar.
This Is the Real Finals
If the purpose of the playoffs is to crown the league's greatest team as the season's champion, the NBA Finals should be a battle between the two best squads. And right now, that's impossible when both leading candidates reside in the West and are tasked with facing one another in the penultimate round.
The Boston Celtics have proved during the first two rounds that writing them off is foolish. Head coach Brad Stevens is a sorcerer on the sidelines, capable of maximizing talent up and down his roster while helping players such as Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes emerge as deadly contributors. Waving away the Cleveland Cavaliers is more foolish still, if for no other reason than LeBron James' enduring presence.
But whoever wins the Eastern Conference Finals will serve as distinct underdogs against whoever takes the West. To drive that home, we can look at FiveThirtyEight's CARM-Elo model, which gives the four remaining teams the following chances of winning the title:
- Houston Rockets: 69 percent
- Golden State Warriors: 15 percent
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 11 percent
- Boston Celtics: 5 percent
Those are already meager marks for the Eastern contenders, but that's not yet the most telling set of numbers. By also looking at the odds to make the Finals and using a bit of algebra, we can identify the chances of victory the model gives each organization if it should reach the last round:
- Houston Rockets: 87.3 percent
- Golden State Warriors: 71.4 percent
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 18.3 percent
- Boston Celtics: 12.5 percent
Shouldn't the postseason's last series feature something other than a foregone conclusion? Don't we want some level of drama? That's not to rule out either squad from the East—stranger things have happened—but the odds are stacked against them.
The Rockets and Warriors are the Association's best teams. They're playing the real Finals, even if they're technically competing for the right to gain entry into the actual Finals.
During the postseason, the Cavaliers and Celtics have posted respective net ratings of 1.6 and 1.1 en route to the second-to-last step. Golden State and Houston check in at 9.5 and 9.0, respectively. During the regular season, Cleveland boasted the league's No. 13 net rating (1.0), while Boston sat at No. 6 (3.7). Once again, the Warriors (8.0) and Rockets (8.5) paced the league.
And if we bring opponent difficulty into the picture, the gap grows wider.
Basketball Reference's simple rating system (SRS) looks solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule, and it gave the Rockets the regular season's top mark (8.21) with room to spare. Next up were the Toronto Raptors (7.29), who played like a different team during the first 82 outings, while the Warriors checked in at No. 3 (5.79).
Somehow, this is the first time since 2013 the East has laid claim to one of the top-two finishers.
That aside, you have to go through the Utah Jazz (4.47), Philadelphia 76ers (4.30) and Oklahoma City Thunder (3.42) before getting to Boston at No. 7 (3.23). Then you must cycle past the San Antonio Spurs (2.89), Portland Trail Blazers (2.60), Minnesota Timberwolves (2.35), Denver Nuggets (1.57), New Orleans Pelicans (1.48) and Indiana Pacers (1.18) before arriving at the No. 14 Cleveland Cavaliers (0.59).
To be fair, this doesn't account for injuries that weakened teams during postseason runs. Nor does it factor in midseason roster changes. To SRS, the ability to flip the proverbial switch come playoff time is irrelevant, though it works in the Cavaliers' favor while James still graces the roster.
The Warriors and Rockets are nonetheless the best teams left from an objective standpoint. They're also a combined 6-2 against the enduring Eastern outfits this year. But if that's still not enough to sway you, perhaps you want a more even path to the biggest stage for each conference representative, as it's unfairly advantageous for one troop to plow through an easier slate before the final confrontation.
The LeBron James Problem
To be clear, this is in no way meant to diminish what James has done by representing the East in the Finals for seven consecutive years—eight if he and the Cavs can dispatch the surging Celtics. But he's navigated a far simpler path each time through the NBA's weaker half, facing precious few Hall of Famers in their primes and rarely going against one of the league's most dangerous teams.
In fact, let's travel back through time.
Beginning with his run to the 2011 NBA Finals, where he squared off against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, how has the average SRS of James' path compared to his Finals opponent's avenue?
- 2011: Miami's average opponent had a 4.12 SRS; Dallas' had a 3.89 SRS
- 2012: Miami's average opponent had a 2.42 SRS; Oklahoma City's had a 3.67 SRS
- 2013: Miami's average opponent had a 0.5 SRS; San Antonio's had a 2.37 SRS
- 2014: Miami's average opponent had a 0.39 SRS; San Antonio's had a 4.67 SRS
- 2015: Cleveland's average opponent had a 2.3 SRS; Golden State's had a 2.86 SRS
- 2016: Cleveland's average opponent had a 2.67 SRS; Golden State's had a 2.8 SRS
- 2017: Cleveland's average opponent had a 1.75 SRS; Golden State's had a 3.63 SRS
Only once has James faced the tougher slate of opponents, and that was largely thanks to a 2010-11 Chicago Bulls crew led by MVP-caliber Derrick Rose. His trail has been substantially easier almost every year since, and the aggregate average is even more telling.
Over that seven-year stretch, his team's average opponent has posted a 2.02 SRS. His Finals foe's typical antagonist checks in with a 3.41 SRS and has never once fallen below 2.02. And the differential might grow even larger if he goes to his eighth consecutive Finals.
While the Cavaliers' average opponent this year would have a 3.9 SRS—his second-most difficult path, due to the Raptors' regular-season excellence—the Warriors and Rockets would check in at 4.19 and 4.2, respectively.
Stop and think about that. Cleveland entered the playoffs as a No. 4 seed, and it would be guaranteed to have an easier path than either of the top two squads from the opposing conference. Boston would too, for that matter. Should the C's topple the Cavs and end James' run of unabashed dominance, they would have faced an average opponent with a 1.48 SRS en route to the Finals.
Life isn't fair. We all know that. But that doesn't mean the playoff structure has to inherently disadvantage one side.
More Compelling Paths
Fairness alone won't compel the league to make substantial changes such as doing away with conferences—a move James himself came out against, surely without even the tiniest modicum of self-interest. The prospect of featuring the marquee clash one round earlier will have a similar lack of effect, especially considering the world will inevitably watch any Finals battle with the Larry O'Brien Trophy on the line.
Reasonable counterarguments still exist, largely steeped in historical precedent and ease of travel should a West Coast team be slated to play on the East Coast time and time again—or vice versa. But what if the whole process was more fun, creating more compelling matchups from start to finish rather than the slate of first-round blowouts and second-round cakewalks we witnessed this year?
We're not even suggesting something as off-the-wall as taking the best 16 teams regardless of conference, though that would be a preferable secondary step down the road. Instead, take a gander at the matchups we'd have seen if eight teams got in from each conference and were seeded from No. 1 through No. 16 based solely on overall record (tiebreakers determined by SRS rather than head-to-head affairs):
- No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 16 Washington Wizards
- No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 15 Milwaukee Bucks
- No. 3 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 14 Miami Heat
- No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 13 Minnesota Timberwolves
- No. 5 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 12 San Antonio Spurs
- No. 6 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 11 Indiana Pacers
- No. 7 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 10 New Orleans Pelicans
- No. 8 Utah Jazz vs. No. 9 Oklahoma City Thunder
We're left with quite a few of the same first-round matchups, but many of the new ones are fascinating.
Watching San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich attempt to slow down Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid would make for must-watch television. What would the Celtics do against Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler? Could Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra devise a game plan to check the Dubs?
But the matchups get better as the tournament progresses. Assuming all results from real-life series are maintained and giving the top seeds priority in the others, here's what we'd be looking at in the second round:
- No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz
- No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 10 New Orleans Pelicans
- No. 3 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 6 Cleveland Cavaliers
- No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Philadelphia 76ers
Anthony Davis taking on the Raptors (who surely won't complain that they couldn't see James until the Finals)? Yes, please. The Warriors and Cavaliers coming to blows two rounds earlier? That's a more reasonable time for two teams occupying different tiers to meet.
And following the same rules as last time, we'd then be looking at a Rockets-Celtics faceoff in one semifinal while the Raptors and Warriors do battle in the other. Then, in all likelihood, we get the dream matchup between the NBA's two best teams in the ultimate round.
Either way, new format or current method, we're getting Warriors-Rockets. But at least with this newfangled bracket, it would be for the title rather than setting the stage for a far less compelling Finals.