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The Case Against Conferences

OK, it's the day after the draft, and I'm still a little blown away by how much better the West is than the East, and how the additions of Oden and Durant mean that it's not going to change for a long time.

Is it just hyperbole?  Is it just the subjective rantings of an unstable mind (someone who blogs about the Clippers clearly is not stable)?  I tried to look beyond the obvious that anyone can see with, you know, their eyes, for empirical evidence of the West's dominion.

Consider this:  of the 15 teams in the Western Conference, 12 of them have at least one player on their roster who has made an All-NBA team in the past four NBA seasons.  In other words, one of the best 15 players in the league in those years is on the team.  The three teams without an All-Pro in the West?  Utah, in the Western Conference Finals this season, so I think they're doing OK for themselves (and by the way, Boozer deserved to be on the team this season), Memphis who has Pau Gasol, the most underrated player in the NBA next to Elton Brand, and Portland, who just landed Greg Oden in the Draft lottery.  I'm saying, there's major reason for optimism for each and every Western Conference team.

So what you say?  I'm sure some of those All-NBA guys are past their prime.  What about the young guys?  I'm glad you asked.  Yes, Peja Stojakovich is a tad long in the tooth, but 2006 Rookie of the Year Chris Paul balances out that issue for the Hornets.  In fact, 6 of the last 9 ROY's are in the Western Conference, with Elton Brand and Mike Miller both earning the award in the East and since moving to the West.

This highlights another trend - the vast majority of the major inter-conference moves of recent years have wildly favored the West.  There was in fact one former ROY who moved east.  His name is Steve Francis.  But the last league MVP to come from the Eastern Conference?  That would be Allen Iverson, in 2000.  By the way, he's in the West now.  In other words, every NBA MVP this CENTURY plays in the Western Conference.

Even the handful of trades where great players moved East tend to exacerbate the problem, at least in the future.  The 1999 NBA MVP, Shaquille ONeal, moved into the Eastern Conference, which was good for a championship at the age of 34, and a first round exit at the age of 35.  How good is he going to be at 36?  37?  Jason Kidd left Phoenix for New Jersey and made them an Eastern Conference Champ - but he's 34 now.

Of course, age may eventually catch up to the West as well - Nash is 33, Ray Allen and Iverson are 32, even 'the Kid' is 31, and we all keep hearing about how Kobe is an 'old' 29.  But there seem to be a few Rookie of the Year types to fill their shoes.

Still, you say, two of the NBA's new big three are in the Eastern Conference, so the East's future is bright.  Have you watched Cleveland play?  LeBron is great - that team is not.  They are a long way from being great.  And Wade is terrific, but with Shaq nearing the end of his career, he's going to need a lot more help, and I don't see it arriving any time soon.  Basically, LeBron and Wade are looking a lot like KG and Kobe right now.  The Wolves and Lakers are, along with the Kings, the Western Conference's least promising teams right now.  Sure LeBron and DWade are younger, but KG has shown what happens if you don't put a little something around a great player.  The difference is that Cleveland and Miami are in the East, so they can still make the playoffs, and maybe even get into the Finals.  But in the West, without Shaquille (right Kobe?), you're not even going to make the playoffs - not anymore.

I facetiously suggested a league re-alignment yesterday, and citizen MP has called for the abolishment of the conferences altogether.  Of course, that's never going to happen... but then I ask myself, why not?  No major US sport, not even MLS, has eliminated conferences and divisions.  They all believe that those things help to build rivalries.  But in European football they have a single table, and it hasn't kept those leagues from being mildly popular, while creating just a few decent rivalries as well (Man United v. Chelsea, anyone?)  

The other argument for Conferences is travel, but putting more balance into the schedule would not significantly change the amount of travel for teams.  Currently teams play their four Division opponents (geographically closest) 4 times each, 6 Conference opponents 4 times each, the other 4 Conference opponents 3 times each, and the 15 teams in the other Conference twice each.  Switching a mere 10 games to play against the other conference would result in a balanced schedule (as balanced as it can be at 82 games, which is another topic but don't get me started), and one additional 5 game road trip to the other half of the country.  Big deal.  

So what's to keep the NBA from abolishing the conferences and just having the top 16 teams move into the playoffs?  While we're at it, let's also re-seed after each round.  I'm getting tired of watching the NBA Finals in May, and then having to watch two more rounds of anti-climactic basketball.  A top-16 system this season would undoubtedly have seen the Clippers and Hornets into the playoffs, while Orlando and Washington stayed home (assuming those switched 10 games resulted in more wins for the Western teams and more losses for the Eastern team).  That's 10 West and 6 East.  In the coming seasons with Oden and Durant, it could be even worse.

Unfortunately, this may represent the Clippers' best hope of returning to the playoffs in the foreseeable future.  Since the NBA is never actually going to eliminate conferences, this is not good.