The NBA’s playoff races are starting to take shape — well, two shapes.
In the East, picture three distinct shelves. Five teams can dream of a Finals trip, the next six are trailing far behind in no man’s land, and the last four are already praying for a chance to draft Duke’s Zion Williamson. Out West, imagine a staircase that abuts a sharp cliff. The conference’s 15 teams are gradually separated one step at a time — except for the Phoenix Suns, who are all alone at the bottom of the canyon.
These dueling landscapes have been a boon for night-to-night conversation among die-hards, as the past four regular seasons have often felt like mere preludes to LeBron James facing the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. This year, the NBA is basking in the thrill of the unknown: The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have been freed from their boogeyman in the East, while the Warriors and Houston Rockets have stumbled enough to raise hopes among their competitors in the West. Nevertheless, the league’s long-standing conference imbalance continues, and it threatens to seriously dampen the fun and excitement during the playoffs.
The West’s dominance since Michael Jordan’s 1998 retirement is no secret. West teams have won 14 of the past 20 titles, claiming a 68-43 (. 613) head-to-head record in Finals games. There have been 28 60-win teams over the past 20 years: 19 from the West and nine from the East. In 13 of the past 20 years, a West lottery team had a superior record than the East’s eighth seed. By contrast, an East lottery team was snubbed from the playoffs in this manner just twice over the same time period.
Despite the impressive new blood at the top of the East, the macro trend between the conferences is holding. This season, through Jan. 11, the West is 130-89 (.594) against the East. Ten of the NBA’s top 16 teams, by both winning percentage and point differential, are from the West — even though West teams are at a disadvantage due to the NBA’s imbalanced regular-season schedule, which features 52 conference games and 30 non-conference games. In other words, if the playoffs started today, two deserving West teams would be at home while two undeserving East teams would be headed to the postseason.
That’s unfair and unfortunate, but it gets worse when one considers which teams might be snubbed. Anthony Davis, arguably a top-five talent, would have a far easier time leading the New Orleans Pelicans into the playoffs in the East. Ditto for Dallas’s Luka Doncic, the presumptive rookie of the year and one of the leading all-star vote-getters. And don’t forget about the Sacramento Kings, who are powered by second-year standout De’Aaron Fox. Instead of capping its surprising season with a postseason trip, Sacramento is likely headed for its 13th straight lottery appearance in the West.
But the real nightmare scenario for the NBA’s league office, media and fans concerns James and the Los Angeles Lakers. The four-time MVP suffered a groin strain on Christmas, causing him to miss at least 11 games. During his absence, the Lakers have dropped to the eighth seed, with the Utah Jazz nipping at their heels. Such is life in the unforgiving West, where virtually every team is a two-week injury away from the playoff bubble.
Imagine how damaging it would be for the NBA’s television ratings and financial bottom-line if the league’s biggest star and highest-profile team won 45 games and missed the playoffs in the West, while the mediocre Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons or Orlando Magic slipped in as the East’s eighth seed with a losing record. Even if James and the Lakers hold on, at least three of the East’s first-round matchups are shaping up to be total snoozers. The playoffs won’t exactly be starting with a bang.
This ongoing conference imbalance has led to multiple reform campaigns, including a 1-to-16 proposal which would take the league’s top 16 teams into the playoffs regardless of conference. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated in February that he’s open to exploring a switch and that the main “obstacle is travel, not tradition.” Aside from the cross-country flight logistics, though, East owners would also need serious convincing to vote for change that would harm their self-interests.
Here’s hoping the reform proposals are seriously considered and debated again. In a league where stars work out 12 months a year to maximize their talents and create superteams to improve their title chances, it’s endlessly frustrating that the NBA itself settles for less than its best in the playoffs.
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