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Point & Counter: Eliminating The Conference-Based Playoff System

The Point, by Christopher Reina

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein, we learn how "extreme capitalism loves a blank slate, often finding its opening after crises or shocks".

The NBA admits it is undergoing a phase of extreme shock, completely changing its financial relationship with its players and amongst owners in the form of measures to improve competitive balance for smaller market teams.

A lockout-shortened season could allow the NBA to experiment with a severe change to its playoff structure where the region-based conference system is eliminated.

Let’s say the NBA begins the regular season around New Year’s Day, there would be enough time to play a 58-game schedule with a home-and-away against all 29 other teams. From there, a 16-team, conference eliminated playoff based entirely on order of finish would be the epitome of fairness in a short season with a perfectly balanced schedule.

Instead of seeing so many repeat matchups, the Spurs have played either the Mavericks or Suns in the playoffs each year since 2005 for example, we will have the opportunity to have teams and players meet fresh and allow the entire NBA to become more familiar with each other. 

Between his rookie season and first retirement in 1993, Michael Jordan and the Bulls had playoff matchups against the Pistons (4), Cavaliers (4), Knicks (4), 76ers (2), Bucks (2), Celtics (2), Lakers, Heat, Blazers, Hawks and Suns. While those meetings against the Pistons defined the pre-championship grind for Jordan, an open playoff system could have resulted in those two teams meeting just as frequently and possibly even in a winner-take-all Finals while also allowing the NBA’s cash cow to visit Western Conference cities for intensely meaningful games.

If we had a common pool based on last season’s standings, the first round of the 10-11 Playoffs would have looked like this:

Bulls/Nuggets
Spurs/Blazers
Heat/Hornets
Lakers/Grizzlies
Mavericks/Hawks
Celtics/Rockets
Thunder/Knicks
Magic/76ers

The 43-39 Rockets would replace the 37-45 Pacers as the only change to the 16 playoff teams, just as the 48-win Warriors would have replaced the 37-win Hawks in 2008.

Assuming the higher seeds advanced, the second round would have featured the Bulls/Magic, Spurs/Thunder, Heat/Celtics and Lakers/Mavericks. The second set of matchups is what we saw from the second round under the current system.

Using last season’s victors as a guiding point from there, the semifinals would have been between the Bulls/Mavericks and Thunder/Heat, the same Final Four we already saw except with different pairings. The Finals, under this mythical scenario, would have still been Dallas against Miami.

Unlike the NFL and MLB, the conferences don’t have separate histories that were combined in the form of merger. The NBA’s conference system is based on ease of travel for an era when teams traveled by train and commercial air instead of luxurious chartered planes. There are no fundamental differences in the spirit of the two conferences where anything would be lost by eliminating their very existence.

The risk of compromising the ease of how quickly rivalries develop in two separated shallow playoff pools is minimal compared to the perpetual newness of the very best.

The Counter, by Jonathan Tjarks

For most of the last decade, the Eastern Conference Playoffs have featured teams with sub-.500 records while Western Conference teams with as many as 48 wins have had to stay at home. As a result of this disparity, many want to re-seed the playoffs 1-16 regardless of conference.

However, the benefit of adding marginally better teams at the bottom of the playoff bracket doesn’t outweigh the cost of diminishing conference rivalries like the Bulls/Heat and the Spurs/Mavericks.

More than half of the NBA’s teams make the playoffs every year, as compared to 8 out of 30 in MLB and 12 out of 32 in the NFL. The NBA’s regular season is already diminished in comparison to the other major American sports; it’s hard to feel much sympathy for any team that can’t finish in the top half of its conference.

The playoffs, a prolonged two-month affair that features recurring characters and storylines drawn out over several seasons, are what draw in casual fans. Reseeding them every year, without regard to conference affiliation, would sacrifice what makes them so compelling in the name of novelty.

You can’t tell the story of Michael Jordan without mentioning that he came up short against the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons three straight times; the Bulls weren’t going to win a championship without beating Detroit, which fueled mutual dislike on both teams. Similarly, Jordan’s legacy in New York is strong because the Bulls defeated the Knicks multiple times in the ‘90’s.

After their one-man teams repeatedly fell short against the Boston Celtics and their “Big Three”, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade teamed up in Miami. Now, the new-look Heat are the most hated squad in the NBA, and the thought of them battling the Carmelo/Amare Knicks and the Rose/Noah Bulls on a yearly basis has to have TNT executives salivating.

The current structure of the NBA playoffs makes rivalries inevitable. In the middle of the decade, the Mavericks and the Suns built their teams around beating San Antonio. Now, Oklahoma City and LA know the road through the West goes through Dallas.  

Let’s not kill these rivalries in the cradle in an effort to get more mediocre teams into the playoffs.

 

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