Holding Court – Should the NBA conference system be scrapped?

Bert A. Ramirez
The gap between the West and East has grown over the past 15 years. Columnist Bert Ramirez explores whether eliminating the conference system would spark the playoff picture

 NO BEASTS IN EAST? The Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats have losing records, but would be playoff teams if the post-season started today. Western conference teams don't have that luxury. Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – If the playoffs started today, March 31 (March 30 in the US), two Eastern Conference teams with losing records would make it, and as many Western Conference squads with a winning or even record would not. The Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks, with 35-38 and 31-41 marks, respectively, will get a shot at being possibly swept in the first round by the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat, while the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves, with 43-30 and 36-36 slates, will be left out of the Big Dance, ruing their fate for having been residents of a stronger conference.

The disparity in strength between the Western and the Eastern Conference has been such that for the past 15 years, teams in the West have generally had better records taken on the average of per-season wins and losses, and that in seven of the past 10 years, there have been nine East ballclubs that got into the postseason party with a losing mark while there’s been no West squad at all that did.  In the 2009-10 season alone, when no team entered the playoffs with a losing record, the last two qualifiers in the West – San Antonio and Oklahoma City – each won 50 games while their counterparts in the East – Charlotte and Chicago, had more modest slates of 44-38 and 41-41, in that order.

The imbalance, or divide if you will, between the two conferences is particularly pronounced this year. According to Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, a system that incorporates schedule strength, 10 of the top 13 teams come from the Western Conference, and only six would be from the East if one were forced to fill the playoff brackets.  

It’s because of this disparity that several quarters have proposed certain changes to make the playoffs a better, nay, a real forum for the best teams in pro basketball, where only the best can break into and where competitiveness would be at its highest level because of this. Foremost of these changes is the abolition of the conference system. Under this system, the top 16 teams in terms of record regardless of conference will make the playoffs, not an entirely preposterous idea according to its proponents since the lines have been blurred regarding how many teams from each of the six divisions can make the playoffs anyway.

“The NBA has slowly but surely eroded the meaning of divisions; now, all a division title gets you is an automatic playoff berth, a top-four seed and a tiebreaker advantage. Why not similarly erode the conference structure?” SB Nation’s Tom Ziller said as he batted for a conference-less distinction in determining playoff teams. “Travel isn’t an issue these days, and rivalries that aren’t geographic in nature (are) just as powerful as regional battles. It’d make for a fairer system and a better first round. What’s not to love?”

“Scrapping a geography-based playoff system would make travel difficult between certain East and West teams over a back-and-forth series,” allows Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN. “The counter to this argument is that there are already ‘West’ teams that actually reside in the Eastern part of the nation. Somehow the league makes do when Memphis plays the Los Angeles Clippers or when New Orleans plays the Los Angeles Lakers in a series.”

Sherwood Strauss says one self-perpetuating weakness that a conference-less system can help cure is the situation where Eastern teams aren’t able to take fuller advantage of the league’s lottery system. “As Curtis Harris astutely pointed out, the NBA lottery system perpetually weakens the East,” he explains. “Good West teams miss the playoff cut, wind up in the lottery and receive high draft picks. Bad East teams make the diluted playoffs and receive low-quality selections. So long as the conference system and lottery system exist as they do, there’s no guarantee that the East rises.”

Sherwood Strauss says one possible drawback that the league may be wary of in a conference-less system is the exclusion of big-market teams in the East, which on the average has a bigger market than the West, making for a diminished buzz in terms of national interest. Another disadvantage is the difficulty of staggering playoff games on the same day for purposes of TV scheduling if everyone is playing in the same time zone.

“It would seem, though, that these rationales for inaction are penny wise and pound foolish,” Sherwood Strauss maintains. “Sacrificing entertaining West teams for the sake of bad, doomed East teams likely isn’t a good strategy for creating playoff memories and building the league.”

NO LOVE FOR T-WOLVES. Kevin Love's Timberwolves would be a playoff team in the East, but are on the outside looking in out West. Photo by Craig Lassig/EPA

Under a conference-less system, the league can also space out the playoffs, according to Yahoo! Sports’ Kelly Dwyer, who says that this can be done by starting the season earlier, something that the NBA used to do when it began the regular season in the second week of October. This would move training camp and tours in foreign countries to September, which would be good for the league in terms of its ability to remain in the news cycle just like the National Football Leagues does, says Dwyer.  

The earlier time frame would also allow for an extended All-Star break to enable players to rest longer, he adds, and while that will also result in an extended schedule for the playoffs and push the draft back possibly into July while also moving back the free agency period, it will help the league keep its visibility through the longer news cycle that would be created “for all the NBA’s tangential parts to feed off of.” 

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, meanwhile, suggests a more drastic system that could really end the existing lottery and playoff system as we always knew it through a scheme he called the “V Plan,” likely a takeoff from his first name’s initial. This plan calls for determining lottery odds based on teams’ records at the All-Star break, not at the end of the regular season.

Ranadive’s scheme consists of two parts. The first is freezing the draft order at the time of the All-Star break. The current lottery system is retained but the basis is now the standings at the All-Star break, thus removing the incentive for teams not to play well – or to “tank” in popular terms – for the rest of the regular season.

The second part works this way: The top seven teams in the Eastern Conference and the top seven clubs in the Western Conference automatically qualify for the playoffs. Then, the remaining eight teams from each conference, regardless of record, play for the eighth and final playoff spot in a sudden-death, college-style playoff in a neutral venue.

“That would inject such excitement into the league. Teams would no longer be incentivized to lose,” Ranadive asserts. “Their fans would have something to hope for, like a Cinderella team that got into the eighth spot. It would solve most of the issues that we’re facing with the way the draft happens right now.”

With the way the league is going now, where tanking or losing games deliberately seems to have become a way of life, or so critics claim, and where there seems to be a disparity in strength between the two conferences, it’s time perhaps for newly-minted NBA commissioner Adam Silver to take a serious look into these seemingly wild ideas and find out which of these are worth fine-tuning and embracing, and which are not.  After all, the future of the sport depends not only on its stars and great teams but also on the soundness of the system under which they operate.

Paul George of the Indiana Pacers drives to the rim against the Washington Bullets last week. Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA

Pacers in slump.  The Indiana Pacers, our first subject of discussion in this column along with fellow preseason Manila visitor Houston Rockets about two months ago for their remarkable play that saw them hang the league’s best record through most of this season, is in a serious slump. The Pacers, with their 91-78 defeat in Washington over the weekend and their 90-76 loss in Cleveland this morning, have lost five of their last seven games and are just 8-9 for March, a far cry from the 44-13 record they had at the end of February, a club record-setting pace that dwarfed the 44-15 mark of Oklahoma City and the 42-16 card of San Antonio, which was then just into the second of a club record-tying 17 straight victories, a streak it has kept to this point.

The Pacers thought they had come out of their recent slump with a breakthrough 84-83 cliffhanger win over top East rival Miami last March 26, but the beatings they got in Washington and Cleveland clearly showed their up-and-down play of late continued, and they’re frustrated because of it.  

“It is frustrating, because we know what to do,” said top Pacers star Paul George, who came into the Cleveland game shooting just 30 percent in his last seven games and then went 5-of-13. “We know who we are, we know how much we put in to get to where we are at. We are just not taking care of the opportunity.  We showed spurts that we can be that team. We just have to maintain the consistency with it.”

“At this moment, we look vulnerable,” frontcourt partner David West said. “We look like teams can just come at us. Again, it’s because we don’t play a good brand of basketball… We’re verbalizing it, we talked about it somewhat after the game.  We got to get it.  We feel like we got enough pieces. We’ve got to get it. We get up for the Miami (Heat), get up for the Chicago Bulls, and then come out and lay donuts against the Wizards and these other teams. We’ve got to get it.”

The Pacers’ problems seem to stem from the offensive end, as they couldn’t even break 80 points in their last four losses, scoring 76 against the Cavaliers, 78 against the Wizards, 77 against Chicago and a season-low 71 against Memphis. In their nine losses in March, the Pacers have just averaged 83.4 points while allowing 96.4 to their opponents. Conversely, they’ve averaged 97.1 points in their eight victories while holding down their rivals to 90.1 scores. 

“We have to keep improving our offensive execution, create open shots, and then we have to make shots,” coach Frank Vogel, aware of the Pacers’ problems, said after the Wizards game. “We are creating shots on poor shooting nights, so we have to make shots. I thought we came out with great energy, we were ready to play, and the lack of shotmaking took our spirits a little bit.” 

Vogel again spoke of the same problem after losing to the Kyrie Irving-less Cavaliers: “It’s a lot of fundamentals: screening, the extra pass, all those little things.”

“We’re just not moving the ball and getting everybody involved,” All-Star center Roy Hibbert said after taking just eight shots in that Wizards defeat. “I mean, you could rehearse stuff for the past month and it’ll tell you what our problems are.”

The Pacers have eight games left on their schedule, and this will tell whether they will get homecourt advantage at least in the East, or relinquish it to their main adversary Miami.  These include marquee matchups against the Spurs and Thunder at home and the Heat themselves in Miami.  How they handle these games will definitely have a telling effect on the rest of what started as a record-setting season going forward.

SHORTSHOTS: Philadelphia finally broke out of a league record-tying 26 consecutive losses by blowing out Detroit 123-98 yesterday (March 29 in the US).  Makes you wonder where these Sixers were all this time… Kevin Durant scored 31 points in Oklahoma City’s 116-96 rout of Utah this morning to extend his streak of consecutive games with at least 25 points to 38 games. Durant is now just two behind the 40 posted by Michael Jordan in the 1986-87 season. Durant also did it in just three quarters, an increasingly common occurrence as seven of the Thunder’s 10 victories in March have come in blowouts…

University of Kentucky completed the cast in the NCAA’s Final Four when the eighth-ranked Wildcats beat No. 2 Michigan 75-72 earlier today in the Midwest finals as Aaron Harrison, one of a pair of identical twins in the Wildcats’ starting lineup (the other is Andrew), hit a three-point shot with 2.6 seconds left. Two days earlier, Kentucky came from behind to beat defending national champion Louisville 74-69 to reach the Elite Eight. The Wildcats and the No. 4 Cardinals have a huge rivalry going on between them, much like intra-state rivals North Carolina and Duke, but this time, Kentucky coach John Calipari beat former Big East counterpart Rick Pitino for the bragging rights in the Bluegrass State…

No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Wisconsin became the first teams to reach this year’s Final Four after the Gators beat No. 11 Dayton 62-52 in the South finals, and the Badgers overcame top-ranked Arizona 64-63 in overtime in the West finals as seven-foot junior forward Frank Kaminsky scored a game-high 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. No. 7 University of Connecticut followed suit by upending No. 4 Michigan State 60-54 in the East finals as senior guard Shabazz Napier, the East regional’s most outstanding player, had 25 points, six rebounds and four assists. Connecticut will now face Florida in the national semifinals next weekend while Wisconsin will match up with Kentucky for the right to play for all the marbles. – Rappler.com 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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