Thursday, April 3, 2014

Eliminate Conferences for Competitive Balance

A brief study of the NBA's final season's standings during the David Stern Era (1983-2013) reveals that competitive balance never existed. First, only 9 different teams of the 30 NBA teams have won the championship during the past 30 years, the NFL has had 18 and the MLB has had 20 different teams over the same period. The same large market teams win continually and consecutively. The San Antonio Spurs are the exception since they have had three core players for over a decade, that consistency is not seen in any large or small market teams and not in any other league.

The glaring injustice is readily seen by reviewing the season's standing and the playoffs' seeding format. The NBA is organized (two conferences containing three divisions with five teams in each) so that the division winners and the remaining top 5 teams within each conference qualify for the playoffs. 

Longtime NBA fans have held that the Eastern and Western Conferences are not equal, are not balanced. Specifically that teams in the West are superior to teams in the East. The greatest injustice the NBA perpetuates is against Western teams who play a preponderance of their games against tougher competition and are then punished for that excellence (teams play a majority of their games within their conference). A 9th or 10th place Western team with a better record, having faced stiffer competition, will not qualify for the championship so that an inferior Eastern team can qualify, solely to maintain the dated notion of conference symmetry. 

The NBA would have you believe that this imbalance is either part of the natural order, that it will balance-out or that the balance shifts over time. This is largely a myth. Since 2000, 19 Western Conference teams have held superior records to the 8th seeded Eastern Conference team and failed to qualify for the playoffs. Overall during the 30 seasons of the David Stern Era:
  • 20 seasons finished with a minimum of one team failing to qualify for the playoffs even though it earned a better record than the 8th seeded team in the opposing conference
  • 10 seasons finished with multiple teams failing to qualify for the playoffs even though they earned a better record than the 8th seeded team in the opposing conference
  • 14 seasons finished with Western teams failing to qualify for playoffs with better records than Eastern teams (most recently 2012-13 Dallas & Utah)
  • 6 seasons finished with Eastern teams failing to qualify for playoffs with better records than Western teams (most recently 1997-98 Washington Wizards)
  • 19 seasons finished with playoff-qualified teams who won less than half their games (under .500)
  • Since 2000, 10 Eastern Conference teams, who won less than half their games, qualified for the playoffs while 14 Western Conference teams with better records failed to qualify in those same years

The NBA conference system is broke and has been for long time. However the most unfortunate aspect for NBA fans is that the new commissioner, Adam Silver, has no plans to alleviate this perpetual injustice of basic structure. The simplest solution is to eliminate the conferences all together. The conferences are an archaic and antiquated conception designed to mitigate travel and expenses and whose rationale deteriorates as time moves forward. Instead the NBA should eliminate the conferences and have the division winners and the remaining overall top 10 teams qualify for the playoffs.

If these changes were applied to last season, the first round playoff match-ups would be as follows:
  • 1. Miami Heat vs. 16. Boston Celtics
  • 2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 15. Utah Jazz*
  • 3. San Antonio Spurs vs. 14. Atlanta Hawks
  • 4. Denver Nuggets vs. 13. Houston Rockets
  • 5. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 12. Los Angeles Lakers
  • 6. Memphis Grizzlies vs. 11. Chicago Bulls
  • 7. New York Knicks vs. 10. Golden State Warriors
  • 8. Indiana Pacers vs. 9. Brooklyn Nets

* Utah Jazz with a 43-39 record failed to qualify because they were in the Western Conference while the Milwaukee Bucks with a 38-44 record did qualify because they were in the Eastern Conference (also Dallas Mavericks had a 41-41 record).

Finally thanks to for stats.