If there’s one thing that stuck out in my mind when making my first round picks for ESPN’s Geek Smackdown, it’s that the East largely consisted of lopsided battles while the West had a couple of really close series. All 8 Western teams finished with a winning percentage of .600 or higher, while only 3 Eastern teams bettered that mark for the regular season. Consequently a couple of Western conference series are of second round quality such as Houston/Utah and San Antonio/Phoenix. And it doesn’t seem fair that a team like Golden State which won 48 games in the more difficult West is watching the playoffs from home while 5 Eastern teams that won fewer games are still playing.
So I wondered what would happen if the NBA discarded the East/West distinction and seeded teams solely based on winning percentage? This year’s playoffs would look like this:
1. Boston vs 8. Philly/Portland
4. Phoenix vs. 5. Orlando
3. San Antonio vs. 6. Golden State
2. New Orleans vs. 7. Cleveland
1. Detroit vs. 8. Toronto
4. Utah vs. 5. Dallas
3. Houston vs. 6. Denver
2. L.A. Lakers vs. 7 Washington
The first thing to notice is the absence of the weaker Eastern teams. Namely Atlanta replaced by Golden State, and Philly needing to beat Portland in a “play-in” game to reconcile a tie for the league’s 16th best record.
In this format, the best first round matchups become the Suns vs. Magic and the Hornets vs. Cavs. Both seem odd when thinking in terms of today’s NBA playoff format, as they are East-West battles. However the series have an intrigue of their own. Orlando’s Dwight Howard, who is currently putting up Russell-esque rebounding numbers against Toronto, would be competing against two huge centers in Shaq and Amare. Meanwhile LeBron wouldn’t have a home court first round matchup as a reward for winning a mediocre 45 games. Instead he would face one of the toughest Western teams in New Orleans.
Looking past the first round yields some better contests than the current format. In this year’s playoffs, the Celtics won’t face a serious challenge until the third round (sorry Cleveland fans). But in my format, they’ll face either Phoenix or Orlando in the second round, and the winner of the Spurs/Hornets in the third round. Meanwhile the “Chamberlain” bracket would be even more competitive, with the Pistons, Jazz, Rockets, and Lakers battling to emerge to the Finals.
Another advantage of this playoff format is that entire conferences wouldn’t be aiming to beat a single team. For a few years, teams in the West sought only to find a way to defeat the Lakers or Spurs. However in a format where teams wouldn’t be assured of going through a certain team to get to the playoffs they can risk finding a different method to win games. Western teams might not have had to waste roster spots to stock their bench with bigmen to counter Duncan or Shaq, and instead become more well rounded to account for any opponent strength.
Additionally teams for the weaker conference wouldn’t be as complacent. This year Eastern conference teams could aim low and still reap the monetary rewards of a couple of playoff home games. Maybe one contributing factor to the East’s recent futility has been forcing 8 teams to go to the playoffs. A sub .500 team will be better off the next year by going to the lottery, instead of the playoffs. And competing against stronger Western teams might force GMs make better moves to improve their teams for a playoff run.
Ultimately this system would correct the flaws of the current system of allowing for bad teams to make the playoffs. Combined with a shuffling of the league’s top teams a non-conference playoff format would make a more balanced playoffs.