The NBA Playoff Format & East-West Imbalance

If the 16 teams who qualify for the NBA playoffs were picked purely by record without record to conference, the West would take 13 of the spots, and that’s even with West teams playing a disproportionate number of games against each other.

The Atlanta Hawks would join Miami and Indiana as the only two teams out of the East. Thus, is the Heat and Pacers’ dominance a product more of their conference, or of their weaker schedules? I’m inclined to think both are legitimately championship-caliber. The Heat’s record is beyond dispute, and the Pacers pushed them to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last June.

There’s a case to be made that Miami and Indiana are truly the best two teams in the NBA, and that every other good team is just in the balanced West, and I would agree with that case. The problem is that this taints the NBA Finals.

How is it fair for Miami and Indiana to spend two rounds tuning up, while Oklahoma City and San Antonio have to spend those same rounds playing knockout basketball? Even assuming one of the West’s favorites survive, are they going to have any gas left in the tank by June?

Is there a solution though? The easy way out is to say the best 16 teams qualify, regardless of conference affiliation. I understand the sentiment, but do not agree. The rivalries and traditions of both East & West come from knowing that these are the teams you’re competing against for playoff berths, and if you take that away, the regular season in the NBA loses what minimal juice it has.

There is another alternative though, and it’s one that was first proposed by Grantland editor Bill Simmons several years ago. What you do is restructure the seeding in the NBA playoff format. Instead of keeping the East & West brackets distinct, why not blend them and do it in a way that enhances the rivalry between the conferences?

What you do is this–instead of the #1 seed in the East playing the #8 seed in the East, just flip it around. Have a criss-cross, where the top team in the East plays the worst team in the West, and vice-versa. You won’t keep bad teams out of the playoffs, but you’ll at least ensure that all the top teams have reasonably equitable paths.

Furthermore, the East vs. West rivalry now has eight first-round series, and possibly more, depending on how that round plays out. A big subplot of every spring would be which league is more dominant, in the same way that how different college conferences fare in the NCAA Tournament is a prominent topic every March. The NCAA wouldn’t have this subplot going if they just sent all conference teams to play amongst each other.

The fact that this format enhances league rivalries while protecting the integrity of the championship path make it entertaining in years when conference imbalance is not an issue and make it viable for other sports, where league rivalry is even more pronounced, notably major league baseball.

Since this proposal only affects how the bracket is seeded and not who qualifies, the NBA could be justified in making this change midstream and doing it this season. And if we like the results, it could be exported to other sports.

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