The counterfactual 2014 NBA playoffs

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA playoffs start this weekend, and we've known for awhile that the East is going to be less compelling. The simple fact is there's an easy solution to fix the playoffs -- just seed the top 16 teams by record, regardless of conference.

It's not news that there's a massive imbalance in the NBA this season between the Eastern and Western Conferences. It's been a problem for many years, and it's been worse than ever this time around, to the point where the Phoenix Suns will miss the playoffs while the Atlanta Hawks will not, despite the fact that the Suns are currently ten games better than the Hawks in the standings. Ten games! The Hawks are about as close to the Suns as the Suns are to the Thunder, who just happen to be the second best team in the NBA.

I wrote about this problem all the way back in November, and while the Nets and Bulls and Raptors all turned their seasons around some, and the Wizards and Bobcats at least managed to post winning records, much of that is owing to the fact that Eastern teams play mostly each other -- and someone has to win those games. With the three worst records in the NBA residing out east, that's a lot of wins for the less terrible teams in the conference.

We can't fix the season easily -- a balanced schedule with anything close to 82 games would require a lot of extra cross country travel, and the NBA isn't about to shorten the season. But while the best solution would be to normalize the schedule while eliminating conferences in the playoff structure, the simple fact of the matter is that doing the latter does not require doing the former. If you simply advanced the top 16 records to the post season and seeded them by record, it would be infinitely better than the current system -- which will ensure that at least one of the three best teams in the NBA (the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers) will be eliminated by the second round.

What would a 16 team postseason that ignores conferences look like? The first round would look something like this.













































We think of the big travesty of this conference imbalance being the fact that one undeserving East team (this season the Hawks) benefits at the expense of a more deserving West team (the Suns). The problem is much bigger than that. If a first round seeded 1 to 16 across the NBA were to hold to home court advantage, the second round of the playoffs would see six Western Conference teams still alive -- and would pit the Heat and the Pacers against each other a round sooner than they can see each other in the current format. Oh, and that's assuming that the Pacers would get past the Suns, far from a given.

Who wouldn't want to see San Antonio versus Golden State, OKC versus Portland and the Clippers versus the Rockets in the second round? I may put a bullet in my brain watching the Pacers and the Bulls slog it out in the actual Eastern Conference semis.

Why should six or seven west teams get the chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs? Because they are among the top eight  teams in the NBA, by pretty much any measure. When the NCAA seeds their basketball tournament, they don't put all the Big 10 teams in the same bracket -- quite the opposite, the spread them across as many brackets as possible. The NCAA is accurately acknowledging that if one of their conferences is truly dominant, then those teams should have as much opportunity as possible to advance before facing each other.

With just two conferences in the NBA, the problem isn't quite so complex. And if there were some semblance of parity, it wouldn't be a problem at all. But there hasn't been parity for years, and it's time to acknowledge that it's a big enough problem that it needs to be addressed. Using the unbalanced schedule as an excuse not to fix the more obvious problem is missing the point -- we could certainly argue that in a balanced schedule Minnesota is actually better than Charlotte or Washington, but the fact that there's no easy fix to find a spot in the postseason for the Timberwolves is no reason not to find one for the Suns.

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver has hinted that he's open to finding a creative solution to this problem with the conferences. It's really not that tough. If you have to keep the conferences as a recognition of the very real logistical challenges of travel during a long regular season, that's as it may be -- but send the best teams to the playoffs, regardless of conference.

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