As I watch the 2013-14 NBA season unfold, I find myself facing a sad, sad realization: This year’s playoffs are going to be an all-time atrocity. If the season were to end in the coming days, we could be looking at Eastern Conference first-round playoff matchups between the Pacers and Celtics, the Heat and Pistons, the Hawks and Wizards, and the Raptors and Bobcats. (God, help us.) Five of those teams are currently below the .500 mark, and a sixth (the Hawks) is barely hovering over it. I consider myself a die-hard NBA fan, and even I would have a difficult time getting excited for those series.
The Western Conference won’t have that dilemma, but it will have a problem on the other side of the spectrum: there are a bunch of competitive teams, and not enough playoff spots. In fact, of the seven teams in the West currently on the outside looking in with regards to the postseason picture, five of them would be fighting for the third seed in the East. Yes, that’s right, you could argue that the West has 13 of the league’s 16 best teams, yet each conference still gets the same number of playoff teams — eight.
It’s not even January, but I’m already cringing just thinking about the playoffs. It’s embarrassing for the league, for the fans, and even for the teams. The system needs to be fixed, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
That’s where I’ll step in. I have a four-step plan that wouldn’t only provide justice to the playoff-seeding process and make the first round more exciting, it would also give actual meaning to the regular season. Here we go.
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1. Abolish the conferences
Above all else, the NBA needs to do away with conferences. It might seem like a prisoner of the moment reaction to a dreadful two-month stretch from the East, but let’s not act like this is the first year there has been a discrepancy in the level of competitiveness between the two conferences.
In recent seasons, the Western Conference has consistently been head and shoulders above the East. Just a year ago, the 41-win Celtics and the 38-win Bucks each made the playoffs, while the 43-win Jazz and the 41-win Mavericks missed the playoffs in the West. In what world does that make sense? It’s especially unfair when you consider that the mediocre Western Conference teams are playing 60 percent of their games against Western Conference competition — a.k.a. tougher competition — while the mediocre Eastern Conference teams get to play the majority of their games against Eastern Conference competition.
In 2009, the fifth through eighth seeds in the East had a combined record of 164-164 — the Heat won 43 games, the Sixers and Bulls each won 41 games, and the Bucks won 39. That same season, the Suns went 46-36, and, you guessed it, missed the playoffs.
It’s really not that hard of a concept to grasp. Merge the two conferences into one, and create as close to a balance schedule as possible for all 30 teams. That way, we get the best 16 teams in the playoffs, and never again will we have to worry about a Brandon Jennings-led Bucks team playing late in April.
2. But wait! Keep divisions!
I’m completely for ridding the league of conferences, but I say that we keep divisions in some capacity.
In sports, divisions are almost like leagues within a league. If you win your division, it’s sort of like winning your own mini-championship. So, in that sense, they’re fun, and division races just add extra excitement to a regular season.
But here’s the twist: Instead of six divisions, there should be four — the Northwest, the Northeast, the Southeast, and the Southwest. Just divide up the teams in the Pacific Division, moving some to the Northwest and some to the Southwest, and do the same with the Central Division — split them up between the Northeast and the Southeast. It doesn’t have to make perfect sense geographically, and if the league feels that it does need to, then the divisions don’t need to be the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, and Southwest. They could be the East, Central, West and South, or something along those lines. It really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there are four divisions rather than six, and that’s what brings me to my next proposal.
3. Cut the number of playoff teams from sixteen to eight
When I watch the postseason in any of the four major sports, there’s really only one element that needs to be present for me to be entertained: some level of doubt. To me, there is nothing worse than when a final outcome is utterly obvious before the game or the series even begins.
Fortunately, most major sports don’t have this problem. In the NFL, anything can happen during Wild Card Weekend; the 8-8 Tim Tebow-led Broncos can take down the 12-4 Steelers, and the 7-9 Seahawks can beat the defending champion Saints. In the MLB, it doesn’t matter if the Yankees win 106 games, because if a few pitchers on the Tigers get hot at the right time, New York could easily be eliminated in the ALDS. In the NHL, seeding almost feels irrelevant — just a couple of years ago, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup.
The NBA, however, is different. Contrary to what Brandon Jennings might have believed, there was never a question of whether or not the Heat were going to get past the Bucks during the first round last season. The question was whether or not the Heat would win each game by double-digits. And in 2011, it was a foregone conclusion that the East’s top three teams — the Bulls, Heat and Celtics — would take down the bottom three playoff teams — the Pacers, Sixers and Knicks — with relative ease, and that’s exactly what happened.
It all boils down to this: Far too many teams — more than half, in fact — make the playoffs in the NBA. It results in a number of uninteresting first-round series, and it takes any significant meaning away from the league’s regular season. There’s simply no incentive for teams to take the regular season all that seriously, because it doesn’t take much to qualify for the postseason. The one incentive to play for is homecourt advantage, which, in reality, only guarantees teams the right to one extra home game in a seven-game series. It’s the reason that Gregg Popovich rests his stars in December — the games are essentially meaningless and he needs to ensure that his players don’t become worn out over the course of a six-month regular season before the playoffs.