Under The Bleachers: NBA Playoff Reform Needed… Immediately

Above: Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler

So far, this year’s NBA Playoffs have been very similar to the regular season.

in the Western Conference, the majority of the games are entertaining and close, and over the course of a couple games, there are three or four teams that look capable of winning the championship. And then you look at the Eastern Conference and wonder what it’s like to know you’re playing for the silver medal.

Cleveland’s chances took a major hit when they lost Kevin Love for the season after Kelly Olynyk dislocated his shoulder. Atlanta struggled with the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets in the opening round, killing any belief people had in their chances and Chicago’s success ebbs and flows based on the amount of days off Derrick Rose has between games.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder missed the playoffs with a better trecord than three teams in the East, the San Antonio Spurs have already been bounced from the playoffs after an amazing series with the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis and Golden State are battling tooth-and-nail just to advance to the Western Conference Finals. One of those teams is going to be sent home while either Atlanta or Washington play for a chance to reach the Finals.

That’s not right and everybody knows it.

Just as the arcane “division winners can’t finish worse than fourth in their conference” rule screwed up seeding out West to start the playoffs – the 51-31 Portland Trailblazers entered at No. 4 while two teams with better records (San Antonio and Memphis) landed at No. 5 and No. 6 respectively – this “eight teams from each conference” formula isn’t giving basketball fans what they truly want, which is the best 16 teams playing for a chance to win the title.

Conferences and divisions are great for keep track of standings, but in the days of chartered flights, superior conditioning and swanky hotels, the things that used to make conferences and divisions important – mostly travel, but also scheduling – aren’t serious concerns, so why not do away with them and give the fans what they really want to see?

Plenty of smart basketball people have been talking about this for a long time and just as there appears to be a real interest in draft reform in The Association, revamping the playoffs to ensure that the best 16 teams in the league, not the best 8 teams in each conference, make it to the playoffs could be next. One look at how the opening round would have lined up illustrates why this would be such a smart decision:

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (16) Boston Celtics
(2) Atlanta Hawks vs. (15) Milwaukee Bucks
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (14) Oklahoma City Thunder
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (13) New Orleans Pelicans
(5) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (12) Washington Wizards
(6) San Antonio Spurs vs. (11) Toronto Raptors
(7) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (10) Chicago Bulls
(8) Portland Trailblazers vs. (9) Dallas Mavericks*

* Dallas and Chicago finished with identical records and without actual tiebreakers in place, Dallas got the edge for playing in the Western Conference

Look at how tasty some of those first-round match-ups are.

Atlanta being forced to deal with Milwaukee’s length? James Harden facing his old team in the opening round? Chris Paul going back to New Orleans. Cleveland vs. Chicago right off the jump?

On top of that, only one team with a below .500 record makes the playoffs (Boston) and there are only two games involving East/West travel, and going from San Antonio to Toronto isn’t that bad. Note: Memphis may play in the West, but it’s not even 200 miles further away from Washington than Chicago, who plays in the East, so that trip isn’t that rough either.

In both conferences, the 1-2-3 and 5 seeds advanced – take that Portland and you’re faulty No. 4 seeding! – and the current set of match-ups are all pretty solid, but there is no fan outside of the Metropolitan DC area that would argue they’d rather see the Washington Wizards in the second round or beyond than the San Antonio Spurs. That’s how things have played out though and it sucks.

Seriously – the fact that Washington or Atlanta are going to be in the NBA’s version of the Final Four while two of Memphis, Golden State, Los Angeles and Houston are going to be sitting at home wondering why they couldn’t have been jettisoned to the Eastern Conference this year.

It’s time to switch things up.

Keep the conferences and divisions if you must, but don’t allow them to have such an impact on the product. Once the Playoffs roll around, the Top 16 teams get in and everyone else goes home and you go from there.

The blueprint should be akin to that of the NCAA Tournament or major tennis events, where only time the best teams play each other is when the stakes are highest. If an upset happens along the way, that becomes a cool storyline and people start rooting for Cinderella, but the fact that two of the top eight teams in the league are already done and two more will be eliminated in this round is backwards.

Scrap conferences. Give us the best basketball possible.

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