While the NBA is thriving at the moment, there are still aspects of the league holding it back from reaching its full potential. Most notably, the East-West conference structure continues to prioritize geography over the best possible postseason product.
The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks dove into this issue extensively on Aug. 8, showcasing the current conference setup as the culprit behind current parity issues and imbalance. As Tjarks cites, commissioner Adam Silver has already said that the two-conference format is unnecessary in the modern NBA.
But the league is also sticking to that format for the foreseeable future, given the two-thirds voting majority required from owners to make any sort of playoff format adjustment. The Eastern teams have no incentive to make their jobs harder, so they’ll never go for something that lowers their postseason odds.
So while it can’t happen right now, it’s still interesting to consider what would a conference-less NBA look like. Without conferences in place, the current six-division format becomes even more useless. But a four-division structure (like what the league had for many years until 2002) could be viable on multiple fronts. Large groupings could foster rivalries the way they once did during the Michael Jordan era. And as long as Silver didn’t create divisional playoffs like the NHL’s disastrous model, everyone involved could end up pretty happy.
Here’s how the league’s 30 teams could be sorted out with four divisions:
|Boston Celtics||Atlanta Hawks||Dallas Mavericks||Denver Nuggets|
|Brooklyn Nets||Charlotte Hornets||Houston Rockets||Golden State Warriors|
|Miami Heat||Chicago Bulls||Memphis Grizzlies||Los Angeles Clippers|
|New York Knicks||Cleveland Cavaliers||Minnesota Timberwolves||Los Angeles Lakers|
|Orlando Magic||Detroit Pistons||New Orleans Pelicans||Phoenix Suns|
|Philadelphia 76ers||Indiana Pacers||Oklahoma City Thunder||Portland Trail Blazers|
|Toronto Raptors||Milwaukee Bucks||San Antonio Spurs||Sacramento Kings|
|Washington Wizards||Utah Jazz|
This doesn’t necessarily fix the scheduling imbalance, though, since some teams would have more divisional games.
But expansion could alleviate that concern. And the league is already talking about adding at least one team. Bringing in two teams would mean four divisions of eight apiece. Four intra-divisional games per opponent (28 games) and home-and-homes against everyone else (48 games) gets us to 76, which is technically short of the 82 contests under the current season format. However, that would also be a minor but workable concession with the NBA Players Association (which would love to reduce the number of games).
None of this is happening anyway, so might as well tack that on, too.
It makes the most sense to tack two teams onto the western half of the United States, given the current glut of eastern squads. SB Nation ranked potential expansion candidates in February, with Seattle being the obvious No. 1. Mexico City was No. 2 on that list, but the current political environment likely eliminates it. A second west team probably means Vancouver gets a second shot over a market like Las Vegas, which would be over-saturated with UNLV, the NHL’s Golden Knights and NFL’s Raiders all calling the market home by 2019.
That shift would create a league alignment like this:
|Boston Celtics||Atlanta Hawks||Dallas Mavericks||Golden State Warriors|
|Brooklyn Nets||Charlotte Hornets||Denver Nuggets||Los Angeles Clippers|
|Miami Heat||Chicago Bulls||Houston Rockets||Los Angeles Lakers|
|New York Knicks||Cleveland Cavaliers||Memphis Grizzlies||Phoenix Suns|
|Orlando Magic||Detroit Pistons||New Orleans Pelicans||Portland Trail Blazers|
|Philadelphia 76ers||Indiana Pacers||Oklahoma City Thunder||Sacramento Kings|
|Toronto Raptors||Milwaukee Bucks||San Antonio Spurs||Seattle SuperSonics|
|Washington Wizards||Minnesota Timberwolves||Utah Jazz||Vancouver TBD|
You could’ve moved any one of Minnesota/Memphis/New Orleans to make this alignment work out. I just chose Minnesota because there’s little rivalry between the Wolves and any team in that “Midwest” division to speak of. Plus, Minnesota/Minneapolis teams and fans are well accustomed to calling teams from Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland rivals. This creates a pretty expansive division from Utah to Houston to Memphis. But what other choice is realistically better? (The NHL’s Central division stretches from Nashville to Winnipeg to Denver to Dallas, for reference.)
In the playoff format here, four division winners would just be rewarded with a home series in the first round. With no conferences, that could’ve looked like this last year (assuming neither expansion team makes the playoffs):
(1) Golden State vs. (16) Chicago
(2) San Antonio vs. (15) Portland
(3) Houston vs. (14) Indiana
(4) Boston vs. (13) Milwaukee
(5) Cleveland vs. (12) Memphis
(6) Utah vs. (11) Atlanta
(7) Toronto vs. (10) Oklahoma City
(8) L.A. Clippers vs. (9) Washington
The first three series there might have been putrid, but the rest bring a sizable amount of entertainment value. Instead of a march toward the inevitably overmatched Cavs vs. Golden State in the NBA Finals, we potentially get that grudge match in the league semifinals. Then it’s likely the Spurs and Rockets on the other side, with the winner facing the Warriors in a more evenly-matched series.
This removes the current tribalism we see with play styles (nearing 20 years and counting), and the ability to prep for a small selection of teams before the postseason. For three straight years, Cleveland knows it’s better than the other teams in the East. So the goal of the season is to get an advantageous seed, then run through those teams.
With a conference-less playoff format, teams can’t just rest on the ability to beat every team on one side of the country. This also likely prevents the recent talent diaspora in the East, with the best players all headed West to take a shot at the Warriors, rather than go up against LeBron James in his prime.
The above is unlikely for now. But there’s no denying it would create a better product for the NBA. For now, the league can succeed without this change being implemented. But if super teams and non-competitive playoffs start to harm the bottom line at all, perhaps owners finally see it as a consideration worth looking into.