Although the NBA has a lot of things going right for it at the moment, years of disparity between the Western and Eastern Conference have caused many to wonder if some change in conference structure is needed. This gap has been especially clear this season, with Western Conference teams winning .677 per cent of games against Eastern Conference opponents. This week, Changing The Game explores how best to deal with this inequality.
The best of the best
The NBA should keep its current conference structure, but only for determining the schedule. The playoffs would then consist of the top 16 teams in the NBA, regardless of their ranking within their respective divisions or conferences. The immediate result of the changed playoff structure would be more competitive playoff games, as the best overall teams in any given season would automatically be given a ticket to the post-season. This proposed structure would also result in a more logical methodology for playoff seeding. Regular season rivalries would remain intact, and travel distances would not be altered. Each team would still play their four divisional opponents four times a year and would have to plan accordingly, but the simple fix of redoing the playoff seeding would endorse a more competitive and fair post-season for the NBA’s teams and fans.
Time to get wild
While the most attractive option for fans may be to reduce the number of games in a season, it seems unlikely that owners and players would be willing to take the pay cut that would come along with it. If the 82-game season is going to remain, the league should explore the possibility of several wild card spots, with a fewer number of guaranteed slots for each conference. For example, each conference could be allotted six guaranteed playoff spots, with four wild cards pulled from either conference, and awarded based on best overall record. While this would not solve issues related to disparity in strength-of-schedule between Western and Eastern Conference teams, it would mostly eliminate the possibility of below-.500 teams sneaking into the playoffs as a low seed in a weak conference. A system like this would mean that this year, the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder would land in the playoffs and the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets would stay home in the post-season. Hardly anyone would argue that the Heat or Hornets are more deserving. Perhaps the best part about this system would be that it is easy to implement and would require no negotiations–the same cannot be said about shortening the length of the season.
Fewer games, more meaning
The current disparity between the quality of the Eastern and Western Conferences is glaring. But as anyone who has taken an introductory economics class can tell you, markets are never fully in equilibrium—the level of talent in the NBA naturally fluctuates over time. From 1980 to 1989, teams from the East won over 50 per cent of games played. Inequalities take time to correct, and will often overcorrect if the market is interfered with. Instead of quick-fix radical realignment proposals, the solution to the NBA’s parity woes should aim to shorten the duration of these deviations from the equilibrium. This could be accomplished by shortening the regular season schedule from 83 games to 56. In addition to giving each game more meaning, a shorter regular season would add a dimension of unpredictability that would stifle the effect of a talent glut in either conference. Over an 82-game slate, the force of regression inevitably erodes away at the winning percentages of less talented teams. With fewer games, there would be more surprises, less injuries, and more excitement. While this proposal would reduce equilibrium on a season-by-season basis, it would eliminate long eras of dominance by either conference. Yes, a shorter season would mean less revenue for players and owners, but it would also contribute towards the long-term viability of a league that is already swimming in money.
Stay closer to home
Although the disparity between the horrid Eastern Conference and the grueling Western Conference has been a major talking point in recent seasons, trying to create parity between the conferences is a short-sighted solution. Relative strength between the East and the West is continuously on a pendulum, it’s just that in recent years, that pendulum has swung in favour of the Western Conference. Surely, given enough time, the balance of power within the NBA will shift back. The greater problem at hand, however, is that of the geographic discrepancies within the divisions as they are currently constructed. The Northwest Division includes teams from Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Only one of those states is in the ‘Northwest.’ Additionally, both the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans are improperly placed in the Southwest Division when they would more aptly be placed in the Southeast.
The solution should be to scrap the notion of conferences altogether and institute divisions of six teams each that are geographically compact. The Minnesota Timberwolves would join the Central Division and the Grizzlies and Pelicans would move to the Southeast, while the remaining Western Conference teams would be split up into new Pacific and Southwest Divisions. The top 16 teams would make the playoffs and would be seeded according to regular season record, making the first 82 games worth something.