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Time for the NBA to end the Conference/Division divide

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics

It’s like an old saying (that I just coined right now): “If you can’t be a better person, go live in a worse neighbourhood. You’ll end up looking better.”

About five weeks into the new NBA season, the Eastern Conference is looking like just that type of neighbourhood.

If the playoffs were to begin today, the Washington Wizards, who have just moved up to .500 with a 9-9 record, would have home court advantage in the Eastern Conference. The 8-12 Boston Celtics, who have a miserable winning percentage of just .400, would also start the playoffs as a home seed in lieu of finishing at the top of the Atlantic Division.

Meanwhile out West, four teams with similar or better records to Washington and Boston – Memphis, Phoenix, LA Lakers, and New Orleans – wouldn’t even make the playoffs. Only two Eastern Conference teams – Indiana and Miami – would qualify for the playoffs if they were in the West. Meanwhile the West has 13 teams with a better record that the eighth seed in the East (Charlotte).

It’s no secret that that Eastern Conference has been far weaker than the West for the better part of the past decade and a half. Western Conference teams always hold a major overall head-to-head advantage against the East.

The post Michael Jordan world (and I mean post Jordan in the Bulls; the Wizards years never happened) have almost exclusively shifted the balance of power to the West. Before LeBron, Wade, and Bosh united to form their superteam in Miami, nine of the 12 titles between 1999-2010 went to the West, all shared between the Lakers and the Spurs. The only East title in this period that wasn’t considered an upset was won by the 2008 Celtics.

Utah Jazz v Phoenix SunsMany of the Finalists from the East in those years, like the 1999 Knicks, 2001 76ers, 2002-03 Nets, 2007 Cavaliers, and 2009 Magic wouldn’t have gotten past the Second Round had they been in the different conference.

Meanwhile, great West Coast teams in that same era, like the early 2000s Portland and Kings, or mid 2000s Suns, Rockets, and Mavericks would’ve had far more success had they been grouped against Eastern opposition.

Over the past three years, LeBron’s Miami have brought some sense of respect back to the ‘Leastern’ Conference, but still, the depth of talent stays out West.

This year, the balance of power between the West and the East is simply bordering on ridiculousness. 10 teams in the West have a winning record so far, while the East only boast of two.

According to Sam Smith, not since 1972 had just two teams in the ‘Least’ had winning records as late as December. Smith also adds that the Boston Celtics’ 8-12 record ties an NBA all-time worst at the 20-game mark for a division leader. These numbers are particularly alarming if you take into account the fact that teams from each conference play each other more often in the course of a season than they play against teams from the opposite ends of the coast. Meaning that, despite having to go against the likes of mid-tier West teams like the Thunder, Clippers, or Rockets more often than they go against the Wizards, Celtics, or Hawks, a team like the Suns are still holding a winning record.

Meanwhile, teams who can’t even win more than once every two games could have home court advantage in the First Round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks - Game ThreeYesterday, the Twitter account of the high-flying Trailblazers, who currently standing at first place in the tough Western Conference, published ‘Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend.’ That “friend” could’ve been the 12th place Phoenix Suns, who jokingly replied to the tweet, too.

Although it was all said in jest, the message was clear: the Eastern Conference is a laughing-stock right now. Bad management, bad coaching, and some unfortunate injuries have equalled to some barren basketball. Derrick Rose is out, and the Bulls are struggling.

The Knicks and the Nets are both embarrassments of New York City. And teams which were supposed to be ‘Riggin for Wiggins’ like the 76ers, Celtics, or Bobcats, are suddenly playing playoff basketball. Playoff basketball for the East, I mean. We might as well follow SLAM editor Ben Osborne’s advice and have the Heat and Pacers play out a best-of-77 for the Conference title.

Orlando Magic v Washington WizardsI understand why the NBA has followed the two-conference format since it’s inception. With great distances between American cities, it was difficult in the past to travel regularly from coast-to-coast, so the head-to-head matches between teams that were separated by great distances. This is also why teams in the same division – which are situation even closer to each other – also play each other more often.

But this excuse just won’t work anymore. Times have changed, travel options have improved, the economics of travel have improved, the world is smaller, and first class journeys from anywhere to anywhere even make that short distance feel even shorter. The NBA has already changed the Finals format from 2-3-2 to 2-2-1-1-1 in lieu of changing travel conditions. Time to change everything else.

My solution is to be done with conferences and divisions altogether. Teams should play each other an equal number of times all season, without division or conference biases. The Pelicans should play the same number of games against the the Spurs, the Warriors, the Magic, and the Raptors every season. This is what makes a real league – when everyone has an equal chance against everyone. And by the end of the season, the final standings will reflect most fairly where teams stand against each other.

And once the playoffs come around? Forget the one-to-eight of the East and the one-to-eight of the West. Rank the 16 best teams – regardless of geography – one-to-16. In the first round, Number 1 plays Number 16, Number 2 plays Number 15, and so on and so forth. Give everyone the shot they deserve.

It’s unfair to NBA fans who support winning teams to see their squad miss out on a playoff spot just because of geography.

Meanwhile, it is also annoying when badly-managed team owners are awarded a place in the postseason (I’m looking at Dolan and the Knicks) just because they’re lucky enough to be surrounded by other awful teams. If a faint hope of the playoffs exist for the Knicks and the Nets, then it’s only because they know that all they need is a short winning streak to play post-season ball again.

Meanwhile, the Suns and the Lakers might not make the playoffs this year despite putting together a winning team. This is a wrong precedent. For too long, GMs in the East have been bailed out of making mediocre roster moves because mediocrity has been rewarded with playoffs. A change in the system will force these GMs to change their decision-making to survive a more competitive environment.

It’s time to reward excellence, not mediocrity. It’s time to end the Conference and Division divide.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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