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.