NBA commissioner Adam Silver is no dummy. Like the rest of us, he’s aware that his conferences can be dubbed “the Least” and “the Best.”
But instead of lamenting the fact that so many sorry Eastern Conference teams reach the postseason, he sounds ready to do something about it.
“Ultimately, we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” Silver said last week, on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, during a Mavericks-Warriors game.
Unfortunately, a number of the NBA’s better squads reside in the Western Conference and routinely stay home when the regular season ends. In the last 10 years, six teams in the West had winning records and missed the playoffs, while eight teams in the East made the playoffs with losing records.
The discrepancy in quality has been glaring. Ten years ago, the West had six teams with a winning percentage higher than .600 and another that finished at .598; the East had just two teams above .600 and the third-best was at .549. Only four or five East teams typically have been among the league’s Top 16 during the last decade.
In 2007-08, the West’s eighth seed won 50 games, while the East produced only three teams with at least 50 wins. The weaker circuit boasted four 50-game winners in 2009-10, but that was half the number of its counterpart.
Last season, Phoenix finished 14 games over .500 and missed the playoffs. Atlanta finished six games under and reached the postseason.
The Suns are in another tight race this season, entering Monday as the No. 8 team, barely ahead of New Orleans and Oklahoma. Phoenix would be a half-game out of the sixth seed if it played in the East, while the Pelicans and Thunder would be vying for the final two playoff slots.
Silver said he’s open to tweaking the format, possibly going with the six division winners and the next 10 best teams, rather than the top eight from each conference.
“There is an unbalance a certain unfairness,” he said of the current system. “I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. … It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”
That’s not the only aspect that might require tweaking. Neither Major League Baseball nor the NFL utilizes an east-west divide and they’re doing just fine. The NBA requires more frequent, short-term travel (like the NHL, which follows the same model), but the concept of geographically based conferences will be examined, too.
“Realignment is something we’re looking at,” Silver said in December during an interview on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
Tom Ziller of SB Nation came up with a five-region NBA and a reconstituted schedule that would reduce regular-season travel, provide better play (vis-à-vis better-rested teams) and increase the competitive imbalance. Those are worthwhile goals, though no remedy is a cinch.
“I think if there was an easy solution, we would have changed it by now,” Silver told ESPN.
Changing mindsets might be the biggest hurdle. Owners in Milwaukee, Charlotte and Miami, teams in the playoff field as of Monday, wouldn’t be thrilled to sit out if a Top 16 format was in place this season.
But removing mediocre bubble teams from the equation would be in everyone’s best interest.
Miami is the No. 8 seed, a half-game behind Charlotte, no more than two games ahead of Brooklyn, Detroit, Indiana and Boston. The teams that finish seventh and eighth are guaranteed two home playoff games, but they have little chance of advancing.
Reaching the playoffs won’t change the fact that they’re sub-.500 outfits in need of more talent. They’d actually be better off in the lottery, where the right draft pick could take them up a notch.
Conversely, teams like Phoenix last season (48 wins), and perhaps New Orleans and Oklahoma City this season, shouldn’t get any ping-pong balls. They should get a taste of playoff action that provides seasoning for the following campaign. They should give top seeds a scare and perhaps produce a first-round upset that wouldn’t be a miracle.
Even if the imbalance eventually shifts from West to East, a new format would pay off.
We’ve seen an uptick in competitiveness this season with Washington, Cleveland and Milwaukee making strides, as Atlanta states its case as the NBA’s best. But the pattern has been established enough that action is warranted.
Everyone can see the problem.
Thankfully, Silver is ready to fix it.