There is and has been a fundamental imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA for years. The reasons for it are inexplicable, but there is an unequivocal difference in competition.
Conferences and divisions exist with good reason. Teams have to play one another which means they have to travel. Particularly in the early ages of the league, when a good amount of travel was done by busing, divisions and conferences made a lot more sense.
But now teams have their own planes and stay in luxury hotels. Travel isn’t as much of an issue. So should the league be bound by old practices for outdated reasons?
It is a dominance which has extended for nearly two decades. Since 1998-99, the Eastern Conference has won more games than the West only twice, and the West has won a whopping 1,074 games in total, meaning it’s won roughly 56.3 percent of inter-conference games over the last 18 years based on 450 inter-conference games per year.
The chart below shows the season-by-season net difference.
That kind of imbalance has an obvious carry over to the postseason. If the West is winning more games, it means that it’s harder to get to the playoffs and harder to get through them after getting there.
Because of the imbalance in conferences, there’s a correlated imbalance in scheduling. That means that the distinction in records actually understates the West’s supremacy.
Basketball-Reference.com has a “Simple Rating System” which factors in average margin of victory and strength of schedule to rate the teams. Here’s what the two conferences looked like last season in terms of SRS:
The aggregate SRS of the Western Conference’s playoff teams was 34.61. The aggregate in the East was 7.84. Furthermore, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who represented the East in the Finals, had a lower SRS (2.87) than the Golden State Warriors second-round opponent Utah Jazz (4.00) and their Conference Finals foe, the San Antonio Spurs (7.13).
In other words, the West wasn’t just better than the East; they were significantly better. And this offseason the gap seems to have grown.
The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves to kickstart their rebuild. The Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder so they could launch theirs. And Paul Millsap left the Atlanta Hawks for the Denver Nuggets.
That’s three All-Stars that left the East for the West. The only movement the other way was Gordon Hayward who trekked east from the Utah Jazz to the Boston Celtics. That’s a net gain of two All-Stars for the West and doesn’t even include the possible movement of Kyrie Irving or Carmelo Anthony still to come.
So the West got even better and the East got even weaker. And at some point, we have to look at the competitive fairness of things here. Is it in the best interest of the league to have a 35-win team make the postseason while 50-win teams might stay home?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver sees the sense in abandoning the conference structure, but there are also valid concerns about that. ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk quotes him:
“Will we look at it again? I assume we will,” Silver said. “I think for the league, many of us felt that a 1-through-16 playoff made more sense and maybe there’s also the potential, in some ways a separate issue, should you reseed after every round as some leagues do? I think those are things we will continue to look at, but it is not at the top of the agenda right now.”
Chiefly the concerns are travel related. While team jets solve some of the travel related problems, they can’t make up for time-zone changes.
For example, take the Golden State Warriors. A realistic possibility existed last year that if they played in a straight-seeding league they could have faced the Chicago Bulls in the first round and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.
Each leg of the playoff run would be another two- or three-hour time-zone jump. In theory, a team could have to change time zones by as much as three hours four times per round. And this would impact West Coast teams a lot more than anyone else because there just aren’t as many West Coast teams.
And all of that going back and forth can throw off the body’s biochemistry and lead to fatigue. That’s why jet lag is a real thing, and being an NBA player doesn’t make you immune to it.
With more fatigue come injury concerns given as there is an established correlation between the two.
While 1-16 seeding might make more sense in a general “fairness” model where all other things are equal, all other things aren’t equal.
For that reason, Golden State might prefer an alternate path that is slightly more difficult on the court but far less grueling off the court.
So what can you do to solve this? I have a crazy, outside-the-box idea that would be more fundamentally fair, add a ton of intrigue to the first-round and give us one more viewing night that would rival the NBA Draft.
Here’s my idea:
The night after the regular season ends, have all the playoff teams assemble. The top eight teams, in order of seeding, would then be able to choose who their first-round opponent would be.
If Golden State would rather take a West Coast opponent like the Portland Trail Blazers instead of the Chicago Bulls, they could. If the San Antonio Spurs preferred the short trip to OKC, they could do that.
When it’s your turn, you can pick any team from 9-16 who is still on the board.
The immediate impact of that is that teams at the top can’t whine about who they play. If they lose, it’s because they literally choose their own poison.
There are two other, secondary benefits to a system like this.
First, it makes the first-round a lot more intriguing because the team that got picked is going to feel disrespected. “So you think you can beat us?!”
Chips on shoulders make for good rivalries and rivalries make for good playoff basketball, and this would definitely put chips on shoulders.
Second, it means that there would be less “resting” in the first round. The top eight seeds–and where you fit among those eight seeds–would matter a whole lot more, so “meaningless” games would be a lot more meaningful.
And overall, it would make the regular season a lot more significant. The difference between 7 and 10 would be huge. Teams would have to win to get their preferred matchup, not lose their way into it.
One of the driving discussions through the season would be “Who should Team X pick?” Selection night would be a massive TV experience–bigger than the lottery.
Most importantly, it would be fundamentally fairer and lead to a better playoff experience for the fans.