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March 29, 2008

Evaluating the NBA Playoff structure

In yesterday's ESPN Daily Dime, there was a survey asking if you would like to see the top 16 teams taken for the NBA playoffs, regardless of conference. Not surprisingly, 69% of the nearly twenty thousand people who responded said "yes" to the question. And logically, that makes sense. I mean, who wouldn't want to see the most qualified teams in the playoffs. However, as a member of the 31% minority, I would like to use this space to explain that while the 69% may be looking at the big picture, they are failing to see the whole picture.

First off, if the playoffs were to start today, the playoff teams would be as follows:

East: Boston, Detroit, Orlando, Cleveland, Washington, Toronto, Philadelphia, Atlanta
West: New Orleans, San Antonio, LA Lakers, Utah, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Golden State

Now if we were to simply go with the top 16 records, the only things that would change would be Philadelphia and Atlanta out, Denver and Portland in. That's it. Those are the only changes. No sweeping alterations like taking 12 teams from the West as many would make it seem. There would be two teams out, two teams in. Division and conference alignments would be rendered meaningless in order to replace two teams unlikely to win a championship with two teams unlikely to win a championship.

However, this is not even my biggest concern with this thought process. My dilemma comes from determining the top 16 teams. How do you judge the top 16 teams across conferences? I argue that you cannot simply pluck the top records and claim "Problem solved! We have the best teams!" The issue with the system is not that the wrong teams are making the playoffs. It's that the disparity in conferences is so great right now. I would argue that at least four teams in the East would fail to reach .500, much less the playoffs, if they were in the West. But this isn't reflected in the records, as I just showed above, with only two teams being swapped out. Why is this? Well, the answer to that is simple... The East plays the East and the West plays the West.

Obviously, everybody who follows the sport is aware of this, but it is still a crucial point to make when arguing about the best 16 teams. How can you truly judge the premier teams when the level of competition is so markedly different between them? Would Atlanta still have the same record if they played 41 games against the West instead of 30? Wouldn't Portland be in a better position if they faced Miami four times instead of San Antonio? You cannot determine the best teams based on uneven levels of comparison. This season, wouldn't you consider a .450 team from the West to be better than a .550 team from the East? Yet in the 'Best 16 Records' approach, the team from the West would still be excluded from the postseason.

Now you may be thinking that this is still a better approach than what we have now, that at least we'd still be including teams that are qualified for the playoffs and eliminating teams with no reason to even be involved in the discussion. But I argue that the system we have currently is actually MORE inclusive than the alternative and promotes competition among those who would otherwise have no reason to compete.

If the NBA simply took the top 16 records, would Philadelphia have fought back from oblivion to reach .500 or just been satisfied with another year of rebuilding? Would Denver, Golden State, and Dallas be battling to the finish or would they be resting players knowing that their playoff positions were secure? Despite the fact that Eli and the Giants changed the whole "resting players" approach, I don't believe you would be seeing the same level of fight in some of these teams with their playoff lives at stake. And while you would be correct in stating that Portland and Sacramento would still be involved in races if we were to change the system, teams like Atlanta, New Jersey, Indiana, Chicago, and to some degree, Charlotte and Milwaukee, would have folded up ages ago knowing that there was no opportunity to reach the playoffs. Much like the wild card, it keeps hope in cities that would otherwise have none. And if you think that intentional tanking of the season is bad now, what would happen when a handful of teams are eliminated by the end of January? Although I hate seeing the Bulls struggle this season, I'd much prefer to see them compete (and I use the term loosely) than throw out something like what Miami has been lately.

Much like it is after Selection Sunday, this is always a discussion during the season for the simple fact that they want the best teams included. However, much like March Madness, once those first few rounds are completed, the true challengers for the title come to the forefront. The weeks of exciting games make everybody forget who was the nation's 66th or 67th team, just like these playoffs will quickly make you forget who the 17th or 18th best teams were this season. It's also why the BCS will never be free of this debate, as there is no distraction between the bowl pairings and the championship game, but that's a debate for another article.

In the end, I am not saying that I disagree with the thought that the most qualified teams should make the playoffs. But I do believe that it is a bit more complicated than merely taking the teams with the best records and thinking that solves everything. You must consider the imbalanced scheduling, the level of competition across leagues, and the possibility of discouraging several fan bases for the benefit of a few. Could discarding divisions and conferences ultimately prove beneficial to the league? Possibly, but in order to look at this big picture, you have to take into account the whole picture.

For that 69%, that is apparently easier said than done.

1 comment:

Miss Daisy said...

It's funny people talk about the NBA for this. While they had an unprecedented period of Eastern Conference dominance, followed by the perceived shift in power to the West...well, the Western Conference the last 4 years is .500 in the granted thats a bit of data mining because the Lakers or the Spurs won in the five titles before that, but still there is nothing that says that a ragged Lakers or Hornets or Rockets or Spurs team doesn't succumb to a much fresher Detroit/Boston/Orlando/Cleveland team in the Finals.

Also, how come the NFL gets a free pass on all this one-sidedness? From '81 to '96 an NFC team won the Super Bowl (typically, lopsidedly) every year but one (the Marcus Allen led Raiders in '83 broke up the monotony). And from '71 to '81 the AFC won 8 of 10 (2 Dallas teams got in the way in Super Bowl VI and XII) and now we're looking at similar dominance this decade from the AFC who since Elway broke his Super Bowl dry spell in SB XXXII have won 8 of 11....(NOTE: THANK YOU ELI MANNING for saving us from a perfect Patriots season...the '72 Dolphins are 1/1000th as annoying as they and their Cro-Magnon fanbase would be...) But yes, to the point, disparity in conference continues to reign....and alot of it is due to conference competitive imbalance. I mean, really, the Celtics are NOT 57-15 out way, no how.

Nice article, Jim. Solutions about disparity would ALWAYS be welcome.