Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Part 2: Eliminate Conferences for Competitive Balance

On April 11 Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the inequities of the NBA playoffs, unfortunately he said it would only be looked into. “I don’t know if there will be movement,” Silver said. “My initial thought is we should take a fresh look at it. When these conferences were designed it was in the day of commercial travel. … It was very different when we moved teams around the country. In this day and age, where every team in the league is flying charter, it changes everything.”

The league's regular season is a non-division and non-conference driven schedule, all the teams play each other. As noted in the previous post the NBA's obsessive allegiance to the conference playoff format is competitively destructive -- superior (western) conference teams either fail to qualify and/or are instantly put under pressure while inferior (eastern) conference teams are handed a smoother path. The best records belong to San Antonio and Oklahoma City but the league believes fans want a fabricated East vs West finals match-up rather than the two best teams.

Currently the division winners are prioritized and the remaining top 5 teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. This year's suckers are the Phoenix Suns with a 48-34 record -- a better record than all the teams in the Eastern Conference except Indiana and Miami.
  • Last season the Utah Jazz were left out with a 43-39 record while the Milwaukee Bucks qualified with a 38-44 record. 
  • In 2009 and 2010 the Houston Rockets should have replaced the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers respectively. 
  • The Phoenix Suns were locked out of the 2009 playoffs with a better record than the 5th seeded Miami Heat. 
  • The 2008 playoffs should have included both the Golden State Warriors (48-34) and Portland Trail Blazers (41-41) over the Philadelphia 76ers (40-42) and Atlanta Hawks (37-45). 
And the list goes on. Only 9 of the last 30 seasons did NOT have such discrepancies. (1) The Eastern and Western Conferences are not equal and seeding based on division winners invariably slants the match-ups even further.

This year the San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's version of Witchita State where the best record is rewarded with the toughest opponents.
  • They get Dallas, a first round opponent that would have been ranked third in the east. 
  • Then both potential second round opponents have the same record as Miami and higher SRS ratings.(2)
  • Only potentially to have to defeat Oklahoma City, the second best team, to qualify for the league final. 
It is no wonder Spurs Coach Popovich rests his starters on nationally viewed games, the league does his team no favors. 

Imagine the outrage if the NCAA qualified a fixed number of teams from each conference regardless of their relative strength to other conferences.

Since NBA teams play 66 of 82 games outside of their division and play all teams, the seedings should correspond to the overall record. Below is a chart comparing the various leagues' division and conference schedule. 

  1. Percentage of Division Games
  2. Percentage of Non-Division Games
  3. Percentage of Conference Games 
  4. Percentage of Non-Conference Games
It is easy to discover the NBA plays the most non-division and non-conference games, yet their playoff format is determined within conferences and elevates division winners. MLB and NFL teams play 47% and 38% of games within divisions and 88% and 75% within conferences, respectively, which justifies rewarding division winners and employing conference standings for playoff seeding. By contrast the league's sloppy attempt to impersonate these playoff structures fail because less than 20% of games are within divisions and only 63% within conferences. They play each other too often in the regular season for the playoffs to be limited by an ill-fitting conference format with division priorities.

Conferences in the NBA provide no value and arguably help to perpetuate myths and conspiracies concerning the league's clunky administration skills. Divisions however may be a necessary evil. Winning the division can be a simple qualifier for the playoffs but division winners should not be elevated. Divisions have little relevance other than a way to format the regular season schedule in a palatable manner and should only be used for that reason.

If the division winners and remaining overall top 10 teams qualified for the playoffs the last weeks of the season would be dramatically different. Listed below are the overall true top 16 teams and then the NBA's conference driven top 16.

          True Top 16                                                             Conference Top 16
  1. San Antonio Spurs*........... (62-20)...(62-20) .....San Antonio Spurs*
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder*.. (59-23)...(56-26) .....Indiana Pacers*
  3. Los Angeles Clippers*...... (57-25)...(59-23) .....Oklahoma City Thunder*
  4. Indiana Pacers*.................. (56-26)...(54-28) .....Miami Heat*
  5. Miami Heat*...................... (54-28)...(57-25) .....Los Angeles Clippers*    
  6. Houston Rockets............... (54-28)...(48-34) .....Toronto Raptors*
  7. Portland Trail Blazers........ (54-28)...(54-28) .....Houston Rockets
  8. Golden State Warriors....... (51-31)...(48-34) .....Chicago Bulls
  9. Memphis Grizzlies............. (50-32)...(44-38) .....Washington Wizards
  10. Dallas Mavericks................ (49-33)...(54-28) .....Portland Trail Blazers
  11. Toronto Raptors*............... (48-34)...(44-38) .....Brooklyn Nets
  12. Phoenix Suns...................... (48-34)...(51-31) .....Golden State Warriors
  13. Chicago Bulls..................... (48-34)...(43-39) .....Charlotte Bobcats
  14. Washington Wizards.......... (44-38)...(50-32) ......Memphis Grizzlies
  15. Brooklyn Nets.................... (44-38)...(38-44) ......Atlanta Hawks
  16. Charlotte Bobcats.............. (43-39)...(49-33) ......Dallas Mavericks
* Division Winner
If one did not think the league fixes playoff match-ups it would not be difficult to persuade them.
  • Do the Atlanta Hawks deserve to be in the playoffs?
  • Division winner Toronto Raptors are actually the 11th best team.
  • Phoenix Suns are the 12th best team and are not included.
  • Dallas Mavericks are the 10th best team and seeded last.
Another flaw of the conference playoff format is it diminishes the regular season, where individual games eventually carry little significance. Teams need only to compete within their conferences or relative to their conference opponents and if the conference is weak, as is the East, then teams are motivated to rest players and otherwise not fully compete. This convoluted and contrived playoff structure leads to unsavory and predictable end-of-season schemes that discredit the league's reputation. It seems only in the NBA do teams tank.

With a true and honest format Indiana and Miami would have been put under genuine pressure before the playoffs from Los Angeles, Houston and Portland contending for the weaker opponent (as it should be in a professional league). Establishing overall seeding will add legitimate intrigue and drama, the league will have playoff-atmosphere games finishing every season, higher caliber teams qualifying, and more cutthroat regular season gamesThis is the simple incentive the league fails to provide but could easily rectify. 

And by the way, the Minnesota Timberwolves might have seen an easier opportunity in trying to catch up to the Charlotte Bobcats for the final seed, who finished only 3 games ahead, rather than competing against the Phoenix Suns who were 8 games ahead.

One perceived flaw in overall seeding is one side of the country may not be represented in the finals. The NFL and MLB regularly have finals that excluded half of the country and yet continue to create more enthusiasm and success than the NBA.

Ultimately this change would alter how the season is sold. The league believes the big four teams are San Antonio, Indiana, Oklahoma City and Miami. The Los Angeles Clippers, with a better record than Indiana and Miami, would be first to argue against that. It should impact the MVP award -- would LeBron James be as strongly considered if his team were perceived as being 4th, 5th or 6th overall rather than a 2nd seed? 

Knowing the NBA season and playoffs are not a prefabricated event designed to exploit regional markets would bring in both casual viewers looking for honest entertainment as well as the sports fans who have moved on. Most coaches believe competition breeds more competition (which is why Western Conference teams are more entertaining), that authentic competitive battle is what brings excitement and passion to the game for fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, sponsors, etc.

If the NBA were to play an honest season followed by straightforward playoffs it can be a league like none other with an impervious reputation to match. It has the most popular players in the world and a game most people have played and understand but continues to languish well behind the NFL and MLB. 

Next post: 82 Games Too Many.

(1) If you're bored or at work go to click the Eastern Conference and Western Conference headings, it will sort according to records, go back to previous seasons and compare the 8th seeded Eastern Conference team to the 9th seeded Western Conference team to see how often and egregious the seedings have been.

(2) SRS - Simple-Rating-System - calculated by average point differential and strength of schedule by