Not all conferences are created equal, but that doesn’t mean that the current NBA playoff format must be completely abandoned.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver made waves last week by saying that the league is seriously considering adopting a long-requested change to do away with conference-based seeding. As it currently operates, the NBA playoffs consists of 16 teams, pulling the top eight teams from each conference.
There has long been debate about whether this system is fair or not and, more importantly, if it leads to the best possible playoff matchups. In recent years, the calls for change have been louder than ever, mainly due to the massive disparity between the lowly Eastern and dominant Western Conference.
That change, if you ask most people, would be easy; do away with conference-based playoff seeding and simply send the best 16 teams, based on record, to the playoffs, seeded from 1-16.
I do see the reasoning behind it. It would decrease (but not eliminate altogether) the chance of a lopsided Finals, it would give the best teams a chance to head to the postseason and, with modern-day transportation, travel is no longer the major hindrance it once was.
But it’s not that simple. For one thing, even with modern technology, travel is still a major concern. The NBA estimated that 70-percent of playoff series under a 1-16 system would be across different time zones. With player health supposedly a major focus of the NBA front office, that kind of travel is inevitably taxing on the body.
It would lead to more teams resting their starters down the stretch and would elongate a postseason that already lasts an excessive two months. To accommodate for the possibility of a team from say, New York playing a team from Phoenix, you’d have no choice but to incorporate extra rest days between games, stretching out a postseason that already drags on for too long.
At that cost, you’d want this format change to drastically alter the way the playoffs function. I think critics of the current format overestimate how much of a change this would actually create.
If the 1-16 format were adopted this season, rather than eight teams from each conference, you’d have a whopping difference of nine teams from the West and seven teams from the East.
Sure, the seeding would create some interconference matchups, but they are not exactly mouthwatering. If the season ended today, with 1-16 format, we’d be watching Houston take on Miami, Cleveland-Denver, Washington-Indiana, etc. These are not any more competitive or entertaining than those of the current system.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that to do away with conference-based playoff seeding would essentially require doing away with conferences entirely. As ESPN’s Rachel Nichols argued, if the league is simply going to pick the teams with the 16-best records, it’s unfair to schedule the Rockets against the Warriors four times per season with the Cavs making only a single trip to Oakland. You’d have to ditch conference alignment altogether, and I don’t think the NBA is anywhere near ready to make that kind of dramatic change.
And that’s not to mention that the real reason that this entire debate has been so stirred up lately is the fear that LeBron may move to the West in the coming offseason, further disrupting the imbalance. But here’s the thing; the West won’t be better forever. There will always be back and forth between conferences, and in the near future, the East will probably be seen as the dominant league. Having some divisions and conferences be momentarily stronger than others is simply part of the sport.
Bottom line: the 1-16 format sounds great in theory but, in practice, would only exaggerate existing problems in the league. There are some other options that have been discussed which are slightly more appealing, but not any more needed.
For example, it’s been suggested that the league could take eight teams from each conference but then do seeding regardless of conference. This does fix the problem of eliminating conferences altogether, but it would create the same issues with travel and player health. Zach Lowe discussed the possibility of a play-in tournament for the last two seeds similar to the NCAA Tournament, but this would only lead to more mediocre-at-best teams weighing down the talent of the postseason.
On Wednesday, LeBron James, the real catalyst of the whole discussion, voiced his resistance to a new format, saying, “Let's not get too crazy about the playoffs.”
Predictably, he was ridiculed, with most people saying he simply wants an easy road to the Finals. But I agree with the King. If it ain’t broke, and the current format is not broken, don’t fix it. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best the league can do.
Andrew Morrison is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @asmor24