As we head down the final stretch of the NBA season, a time honored ritual will begin, calls to fix the playoff system. Not fix as in Tim Donaghy the crooked referee, but correct so that what is likely to happen this year won’t happen again.
Everyone who follows the sport closely—and at this point many who don’t—know that the Western Conference is much stronger than the East. Usually that means some 43-39 team in the West stays home while the Eastern Conference sends a couple of below .500 teams to the playoffs. This year it’s extreme.
The Eastern Conference will send at least one and possibly two teams with losing records to the postseason; meanwhile in the West, one team, most likely Golden State or Denver will miss the playoffs despite winning 60% of their games. A 43-39 team is just happy to be in the postseason. A team that wins 50 games should have dreams of playing deep into the playoffs.
It hardly seems fair, yet NBA Commissioner David Stern has vigorously resisted calls to realign the playoff system. I have a simple idea to solve everything and it’s such a good idea that I don’t mind admitting the source. It comes from Warriors announcer Bob Fitzgerald. He noticed that the country is too big for a league split into two conferences. This may not be apparent if you live in the East, but consider NBA life west of the Mississippi.
Many NBA road trips involve four games in five nights. Well if you’re Boston and have to go out and play two games in your division and two out, that may mean hopscotch plane trips to Philadelphia and Boston and slightly longer skips to Charlotte and Orlando. The parallel trip in the Western Conference is really bad.
Let’s say Seattle (gotta use the Emerald City in the present tense when it comes to the NBA while we can) does the two in/two out of division games in five nights. That might mean an itinerary that starts in Minneapolis, continues to New Orleans, moves on to Salt Lake City and finishes in Los Angeles. By the time they get to the Staples Center in L.A., the Sonics players will be jet lagged.
I watch a lot of basketball and almost once a night there seems to be a game involving a visiting team that is simply struggling to stay awake; motivation isn’t the problem (unless the Knicks are playing), the structure of the league is. What Fitz proposes is to break the league into three conferences.
The Western Conference would contain the Pacific and Northwest (renamed Mountain) divisions. The Central would include the Southwest and the Central (renamed Midwest) divisions. The Eastern Conference would consist of the Atlantic and Southeast divisions. Then rather than having teams play two games against their non conference foes and three or four against those in conference, the slate would have teams playing five games against their divisional opponents and four against the other teams in their conference.
They would play two each against the teams in the other conference. This would maximize regional rivalry and cut down on those miles in the air. Road teams win barely 40% of all regular season NBA games the current alignment is a big reason why.