I’m Not So Sure the NBA Playoffs Need Fixing

In his June 14th column in the NY Sun, the excellent Martin Johnson penned this proposal (paid subscription req’d) to fix the NBA playoffs; increasing from two conferences to three for the regular season then seeding the teams 1-16, irrespective of conference, for the playoffs. Johnson’s proposal is a minor twist on an idea introduced by Golden State Warriors broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald.

I like the three conference idea for improving the quality of regular season play by making travel less onerous. However, I don’t think there’s anything about the NBA playoffs that needs fixing; not even after San Antonio’s rather inglorious sweep of the we-had-no-business-being-here Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA playoffs don’t need administrative restructuring because at root this current spate of Western Conference dominance is a competitive issue–not an administrative one. As such only competitive dynamics can resolve the “problem” (if you choose to see it as such). Administrative tinkering with the playoffs is just as likely to unleash an unholy backlash of unintended consequences as it is to resolve any perceived imbalance.

In my humble opinion, the big advantage Western Conference clubs currently enjoy resides primarily in their front offices. Of course, an executive talent advantage is the best kind to have, since executive talent begets roster talent. But, it is also the toughest advantage to maintain over the long term. Competitive market pressures tend to ensure that executive talent diffuses to other teams. Nevertheless, at the risk of over-generalizing to the point of stereotype, I think the Eastern Conference still has more than its fair share of stodgy old franchises resistant to this unfamiliar talent. If this is the case, the market will simply continue to hammer them for it. Cleveland and Toronto have raided San Antonio’s and Phoenix’s front office personnel and assistant coaches in attempts to do something different and get better. In the process they’ve bolted past a number of the Eastern Conferences franchises that are happy stuck in their ruts.

Even though it is obvious that the Western Conference is better, it should be equally obvious that such things are not built to last. In fact, the west’s “dominance” is disproportionately reliant on a couple of great (poor) drafts by a handful of teams. Had just a handful of Eastern Conference executives shown better backbone, foresight, and most importantly talent evaluation skills in the past six-to-eight drafts the conference power imbalance would be minimal or perhaps non-existent. The east’s perennial playoff teams over that time period have missed on clear-cut opportunities to make themselves stronger over the near- and long-term through the draft and have paid a dear price. I highlight the draft because it is the clearest indicator of talent evaluation independent of other skills. It’s easy to show with a couple of illustrations how perfectly plausible alternative draft choices by two very good Eastern Conference teams might have made them far stronger, in Detroit’s case probably champions. My point isn’t to beat their GMs soundly about the head and shoulders with 20-20 hindsight, rather it is to illustrate how naturally tenuous so-called dominance really is in a league where the gap between the very best and very worst player isn’t very big compared to international ball or college ball.

Detroit – Had Joe Dumars’ gotten anything at all out of his drafts other than Tayshaun Prince that alone might have changed the tenor of the current discourse about conference power imbalance, at least at the top. For everything there is to like about Dumars it’s only fair to say that he was brutal in the 2003 draft and it cost his team dearly in 2005 and 2006. I don’t hammer Dumars for passing on Carmello Anthony in 2003 as much as I do for passing on Chris Bosh (for Darko Milicic) and Josh Howard (for Carlos Delfino). It is difficult to fathom a talent evaluation process that spit out Milicic and Delfino as the superior players to Bosh and Howard respectively. That 2003 draft may well have cost the Pistons at least one ring and it’s not like Dumars has done much in the draft since then. Not coincidentally, his Pistons have clearly run out of gas the last two post-seasons.

New Jersey – Rod Thorn is generally solid with his picks but his misses in 2003 (Zoran Planinic over Howard or Leandro Barbosa, and trading Kyle Korver to Philly for cash) and 2005 (Antoine Wright over Danny Granger or backup guards Jarrett Jack or Luther Head) left NJ with virtually no bench to compensate when the rash of injuries hit. New Jersey isn’t championship caliber in my opinion but given their core and style of play had they drafted better prior to last season they’d be the kind of team that would be a 50-win team in either conference.

Neither of these “what if” scenarios suggests that San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix wouldn’t still be the class of the NBA. But they do suggest that people may be overstating the case to claim that a) the Clippers are better than the Magic, but the Magic gets a playoff berth only through the good fortune of having been born in the East; so therefore b) the playoffs need to be restructured to address the competitive imbalance between the conferences. Just because part a is true shouldn’t lead one ipso facto to accept that part b is true. The practical difference between the Magic and Clippers lies almost exclusively in the gap between the two men who built their respective rosters: Otis Smith and Elgin Baylor. The talent gap separating those men and their rosters is real but it is also dynamic. Players come and go, as do GMs, as do talent gaps between rosters.

If I could play David Stern for two weeks, rather than tinker with playoff formats I’d look to find ways to replenish the pool of talented executives entering the league. Fundamentally, the competitive imbalance the west enjoys over the east right now derives primarily from the two teams best able to produce their own executive talent (i.e., San Antonio and Phoenix). It’s hardly a coincidence that both have not been shy about looking internationally, outside the relatively closed world of NBA lifers, to develop executive/coaching talent first; not surprisingly success at finding international players has followed.

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Part-time blogger on the Knicks at Knickerblogger.net and Seahawks at FieldGulls.com. In my free time I hang out at the University of South Carolina and occasionally fill thirsty young minds with knowledge about various and sundry things related to consumer behavior and marketing.

10 thoughts to “I’m Not So Sure the NBA Playoffs Need Fixing”

  1. One problem with the current system is that the draft process is actually biased towards maintaining competitive imbalance. Because the West is so much tougher, a .300 team in the west is much better than a .300 team in the east. But both teams get equal consideration for draft positioning. As a result, Western teams get a better ratio of lottery odds to actual team quality.

    Exhibit A and B this year are Portland and Seattle. If ranked by RPI (which takes competitive balance into account) rather than record, both Portland and Seattle would have fallen a couple of notches in the lottery rankings. Instead, they were given better odds than they probably deserved. The bias of the system, combined with a bit of happenstance, has significantly raised the odds that the longstanding imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences will continue into the forseeable future.

  2. I do think one aspect of the playoffs should be fixed – the seeds. They really should re-seed.

  3. I like the seeds how they are, it gives the underdogs a greater chance. The point about the .300 teams in the West being far superior to the teams in the east is so true, and now they have Greg Oden and Kevin Durant out West. Hopefully some superstars start moving east, to even things out because its getting somewhat ridiculous.

    Speaking of star players coming to the east, how about Kobe in New York? I’m not a huge Kobe fan, but if he were with the Knicks I’m sure I could be. How much would we be willing to give up to make that happen?

    -Jamal Crawford
    -Channing Frye
    -Randolph Morris
    -Nate Robinson
    -This Year’s first rounder
    -Next years first rounder (top 5 protected)

    And from the Lakers we would get:

    I think this might be a good trade, although its totally possible that they would demand David Lee or Renaldo Balkman, but they already have a hustle player in that mold in Ronny Turiaf.

  4. The Lakers could obviously get much more for Kobe from another team. The only way he is coming to the Knicks is if he demands to be traded only to the Knicks (by no means out of the question). If he does demand to be traded to the Knicks, then they are crazy to give up Lee because they would not be bidding against anybody. It would just come down to salary considerations (basically everyone on the roster turns from a human being into their salary and whichever numbers work out best would go to LA). LA would want us to take a bloated contract attached to a marginal talent (Vlad Rad) as well, but the Knicks don’t have any expiring contracts to include this year, so they would just get bloated contracts attached to marginal talent (Rose, James, Jeffries, Francis, etc…) in return, which would only further piss LA off.

    As for the players/picks listed above, I’m not sure if it works out salary wise (I’m not a forensic accountant, so it is hard for me to make heads or tails out of the salary cap/trade exceptions intricacies).

  5. The point of the Finals is to pit the two best teams against each other for the championship. Any system that does not go out of its way to make this happen, is a flawed one.

    There is no reason that we can’t come up with a system that will guarantee that the better teams don’t play each other in the earlier rounds.

    Any of the proposed systems–seeding 1-16, re-seeding, or even having the East v. West in round one–would work for me. They all lead to the best teams playing each other at the end.

    It’s not brain science, it’s common sense.

  6. the other major problem with the unbalanced conferences that never seems to be mentioned is how it devalues the regular season. this year, Cleveland, Detroit and Miami were in cruise control for most of the first half of the season, something they couldn’t do if there was some kind of leaguewide seeding system.

  7. I have to disagree that the point of the Finals is to pit the top two teams. Perhaps it should not be, but it isn’t. The NBA Finals (as does the Super Bowl and the World Series) merely pits one conference winner versus another–that’s it. Sports leagues are quite explicit that their championships are determined by such a process. In any season one team’s road to a championship may be smoother than another’s because it faced a weaker schedule. The *only* playoff system that claims to explicitly account for schedule strength in determining championship game contestants is the BCS–and even then the accounting for it is quite limited and certainly not without controversy.

    None of this would be a topic of conversation were the gap between the two conferences not so large. I doubt any of the Western Conference finalists that faced Jordan’s Bulls was the 2nd best team in the NBA (though that may be an interesting topic for another post). “Weak sister” championship competitors are part of every sport. I’m as frustrated as any that the East continues to be the conference wearing the pig-tails and sun dress myself. But it seems to me that it’s more than a slippery slope for any league to create an expectation that all roads leading to a championship should be equidistant. Creating those conditions is far from trivial. It does appear though that the momentum for re-seeding at least is building.

    From the Newark Star-Ledger’s Dave D’Alessandro in today’s (Sunday’s) column http://www.nj.com/columns/ledger/dalessandro/index.ssf?/base/columns-0/1182055018124720.xml&coll=1

    But it always goes back to one ineluctable snag: Reseeding would also lead to changing the regular-season schedule to a more balanced format.

    “I think that would be unpopular,” Stern said, referring to owners who incur travel costs, “because that would be a fundamental change in how we do things, and it would take a longer time. It’s an idea, but one continuously rejected. The reseeding … it’s interesting. I just don’t know how you would balance it out. (But) that’s something that would get a more open hearing than the issue of playing a completely balanced schedule.”

  8. I don’t think you have to rebalance the schedule. no one’s saying you can make things completely fair and equitable. but you can certainly make them more so, and like I said, I think it’d improve the general effort levels in the regular season also.

  9. Yeah, I get that all the radical stuff would never happen, but the NBA is the ONLY league that does not re-seed after each round, so I think they should change that.

    It really makes no sense to re-seed, except if you think that we should, for some reason, reward lower-seeded teams (like the Jazz) for a high seed losing, which is what no re-seeding does.

    The Jazz get rewarded for the Mavs blowing it against the Warriors – how does that make any sense?

    Just re-seed. It’s simple and it’s fairer.

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