As detailed by Kevin Arnovitz in this terrific piece here, the NBA has been unbalanced for over two decades. Specifically, the Eastern Conference has been worse than the Western for almost that entire stretch. The reasons for that imbalance are numerous and complicated—far too multifaceted to be solved by any one rule change. However, the primary symptom of this issue, that of lack of parity in the playoffs, could be remedied substantially by a relatively simple change to the system.
The problem right now is one of fairness. There are teams in the West over the past 20 years that won 45+ wins and missed the playoffs, while teams in the East with only 38 have made it. Not only does this lead to boring playoffs in the Eastern Conference as weak teams get obliterated by the cream of the crop, but it actually enforces the gap by gifting already good teams in the West with lottery picks while worse teams in the East get lower picks. Thus, solid teams in the West can remain good longer than their counterparts in the East, and have a better chance to really improve.
The commonly proposed solution to this dilemna is seeding the entire NBA 1-16. This would presumably be accompanied with a change in the schedule so that teams would play West and East teams more evenly, so that the schedules became fair as well. Seeding the whole NBA 1-16 is generally regarded as the most equitable resolution, the one that would provide the greatest parity in the playoffs, and bring about the most competitive postseason. However, there are several considerable issues with it. They are so substantial, in fact, that Adam Silver has already mentioned that conference re-alignment (to that level, anyway) won’t happen any time soon.
The first, and by far the most significant reason, is that East owners would simply never sign off on it. Seeding teams 1-16 could cost them as many as three playoff teams in seasons like this upcoming one, where there are five East teams that are considered “legit playoff teams” and many more on the bubble who will be a bit above or below a .500 record. Meanwhile, out West, there are as many as 11 teams that could win 45 games if things break correctly for them. If that were to happen, three East teams wouldn’t make the playoffs, and three West teams would replace them. That’s a significant amount of gate and TV revenue that wouldn’t hit East teams, simply too much for their owners to take a chance on. Additionally, even the East teams that do make the playoffs will be lower seeded (and therefore have a poorer chance of making a deep playoff run) than they would be under the traditional format. It simply doesn’t benefit them.
The second problem has to do with travel and scheduling. Eliminating conferences could lead to teams on opposite coasts playing each other from the first round on. Additional travel would wear the players down further, and could advantage teams who luck into matchups closer to home in earlier rounds. The way to solve this issue would be to stretch the playoffs out further to provide more rest days, but that would require extra adjustments to the schedule that teams might not want to mess with. There are arguments to be made that the extra travel isn’t particularly significant, especially considering the luxury that now accompanies NBA teams’ travel. How rough can an extra few hours on private planes and in 5-star hotels be? The answer is probably “not much”, but changing time zones frequently might have a lingering negative effect on players, and the only real solution, as mentioned, is to provide more off-days between games. That may or may not be feasible, or desirable.
The final hitch with making the playoffs a 1-16 seed doesn’t have to do with rules, or player comfort, or parity. Rather, it would signal an end to in-conference rivalries, or at least a likely lessening of them. Last season the Celtics and Wizards became rivals of a sort and had a memorable playoff series. The likelihood of a rematch in the 2018 playoffs would decline substantially in a 1-16 seeding. So would the possibility of a Grizzlies-Clippers series or that of any other rivalry. That means something. Playoff rivalries are awesome, and they make the regular season contests more fun as well. Additionally, seeding 1-16 could trivialize what were once epic Finals’ series. It might be kind of cool to see the Cavs play the Warriors before the Finals, or watch the Lakers play the Celtics in the first round. But I also think it cheapens the Finals. There’s something special about those series, and it’s because the only way those teams can play each other in a series is in the Finals. That element vanishes if seeding is done 1-16: any team could play any other team from the first round on. And I think that would ultimately be a bad thing for the NBA.
My proposal doesn’t completely fix the parity issue. Nor does it eliminate any of the obstacles with the 1-16 model. What it does, however, is limit the complications on both ends of the spectrum. It is, at bottom, a compromise. The plan is simple: if there are teams in one conference making the playoffs with a below .500 record and teams in the other with a .500 record or above who are going to miss the playoffs, the teams are swapped. Essentially, no below .500 teams should make the playoffs if there are better teams missing them elsewhere. When the above .500 teams switch conferences for the playoffs, they are seeded as if they were in that conference as well—they don’t just get the 7 or 8 seed, but can be placed above lesser teams in their new bracket.
As an example, let’s say that the Utah Jazz finish with 45 wins in 2018, and the Trailblazers end with 44, but they are in the 9th and 10th spots in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Hornets got the 6th seed with a 43 win team, the Heat made the 7th seed in the East with a 40 win team, and the 76ers got in with a mere 37 victories. The new rule change would then take effect, and the teams would effectively swap conferences for the duration of the playoffs. The Jazz would fit in at the East 6th seed, the Blazers would be 7th, the Hornets would slide to 8th, and the Heat and 76ers would fall out of the playoffs (but be included in the NBA draft lottery). This would significantly strengthen the bottom of the conference playoffs and make the 1st round a lot more exciting. It is therefore a partial measure toward improving parity in the playoffs.
This solution’s real strengths, however, lie in addressing the difficulties with the 1-16 seed playoffs. It would affect far fewer teams on a yearly basis, thus making it easier for owners to potentially accept. In fact, in the 2017 season, there would have been no changes at all, since all teams who made the playoffs had a record of at least .500! Even in a bad year, there are usually only one, maybe two teams that make the playoffs with a below .500 record, and many years there are none. Instead of having to compete against both conferences, teams would remain in conference, but instead only need a goal of 41 wins. This seems reasonable. A team that loses more games than it wins should never realistically make the playoffs. Forty-one wins is a good cut-off line for competence and ability to legitimately win NBA games.
Because this would likely impact two teams at most in any given year, and only change one conference’s playoffs, the traveling/rest issue would become less important. Yes, the teams from the other conference might have to travel a bit more—but I feel confident that they would accept the extra travel in exchange for a chance to compete in the playoffs. If necessary, those series with extra traveling could be scheduled to start a bit earlier than other series to afford those teams a spare day or two of rest.
Keeping the conferences intact (mostly), would, of course alleviate the rivalry glitch as well. While it would be possible for the Celtics and Lakers (or any other rivalry of choice) to play in the 1st round, it would be unlikely. Moreover, it would almost certainly be a rare occasion (unless one team continued to be the 9th seed in its conference for years), thus making it even more special, rather than a bummer. Two juggernauts like the Warriors and Cavs would be unable to meet before the Finals, thus preserving the Finals as the ultimate test of a champion.
There are issues with the compromise proposition. Teams at the top of the conference might tank games against teams near .500 whom they believe would be weaker playoff opponents than a better team in the other conference. The hope would be that the playoff seeding situation would be too fluid to be able to game unless the schedule breaks just right, thus limiting potential ugliness. But honestly, teams maneuvering their ideal postseason matchups is a legitimate strategy already in place now, and is an interesting twist at the end of the season. Another issue could be that it is simply too weak for some people—there are years where it wouldn’t do anything, or maybe only swap a 41 win team for a 40 win team. However, there are years where it would legitimately shake things up (2014, when Atlanta made the playoffs with a 38 win team while New Orleans missed with 48 comes to mind), and 2018 is shaping up to be one of those years. It’s not perfect - compromises never are - but it would be an improvement. At this point, an improvement of any kind would be great.