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.
Okay, so how does this affect the playoffs? It breaks the binary structure. There is no way to set up a 16 team field with three conferences without simply seeding the teams with the best records into a bracket with the #1 seed versus #16, #8 versus #9, #4 versus #13, and #5 versus #12 on one side, and #2 v. #15, #3 v. #14, and so forth on the other side.
Admittedly this may require some creative scheduling in the postseason if you get a series between say, Portland and Miami, but it saves everyone from what will be an almost pointless Eastern Conference first round. Let's see what Fitz system would produce as of Wednesday night.
For one it puts the Warriors in the thick of the playoff picture—which is where a team winning 60% of its games belongs—and it excludes Atlanta, currently, 36-42, the team most likely to win the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. For another it creates a great race between two of the better coached emerging squads in Toronto and Portland for the hypothetical final playoff spot. The reward for one of those two teams is a first round matchup with Boston, but that hypothetical series will be far more interesting than the Atlanta massacre that will happen at the hands of the Celtics.
The Boston side of this hypothetical bracket would include a Finals rematch between San Antonio and Cleveland and a Los Angeles versus Golden State first round battle. On the other side of this frame, savy, veteran Detroit faces the young athletic Philadelphia, New Orleans gets to play a Washington team that nearly matched its win total from last season despite having their three stars healthy and on the floor together for only nine games.
The other first round barnburners would be Phoenix-Dallas, Houston-Denver, and Utah-Orlando. While the last of these might require some creative scheduling (which happens anyway to facilitate maximum wall-to-wall TV coverage) it would create a far more compelling playoff match-up and a much more interesting regular season.
But wait a second, are you thinking but of course, some guy with the Warriors wants to create a system that does better by his team than the current set up. Consider that Fitzgerald wrote his piece last June. It wasn't a provocation; it was prescient.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.