Searching for Balance: The NBA’s Lopsided Conference Problem

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It’s time for the NBA to take a serious look at scrapping the East-West conference system, and several league sources say that discussion is now happening in some infant stage. The schedule, both its makeup and length, represents the heaviest of several obstacles standing between the league and true postseason fairness.

Screaming about conference imbalance is easy, but changing the system plunges you into the muck of schedule adjustments, flight times, arena booking, gate receipts, the imperiling of traditional rivalries, and more. Negotiating that thicket is overwhelming, and when people meet overwhelming barriers, the inertia of the status quo wins out.

That can no longer suffice. The superiority of the West is laughable. The West is 64-26 against the East head-to-head this season, a winning percentage that would be the highest ever for one conference over the other. During the last decade, the no. 8 seed in the West has on average finished about seven games ahead of the East’s no. 8 seed. At least one lottery team from the West has finished with a better record than the East’s no. 8 seed in an average season during that stretch.

Flip it around: The ninth-place team in the West has ended up with a better record than about 2.5 Eastern Conference playoff teams on average since 2003.

We are staring at a realistic scenario in which two of the league’s three best players, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, miss the playoffs, while Brooklyn, Indiana, and Milwaukee slog through first-round playoff series.

It’s time to think harder about deemphasizing conferences and making sure the 16 best teams overall participate in the playoffs. “The obligation of the league office is to make the competition as fair as possible,” says Jeff Van Gundy. “Why would you ever reward someone who’s worse with a treat?”

Several teams have informally pitched fixes. In an email exchange last week with Grantland, Mark Cuban conjured up a temporary plan that would shift Chicago, Detroit, Indiana, and Milwaukee to the West, with the three Texas teams and New Orleans moving to the East. Robert Sarver, the Suns owner, says he brought up the idea of abolishing conferences for at least the purposes of playoff seeding at the league’s board of governors meeting in October. The wound of having the 48-win Suns miss the playoffs last season is still fresh, but Sarver vows to keep poking at the issue regardless of his team’s fate going forward.

“It needs to be looked at,” Sarver tells Grantland. “I’m getting closer to the point where I just think there needs to be a change. It is on the league’s radar screen now.”

Representatives from at least one other Western Conference team — the Thunder — have informally suggested a top-16 playoff structure over the last six months, according to several sources. Some pitches have included the wrinkle of re-seeding the playoffs after each round, league sources say.

League higher-ups understand the outcry. “We are studying the issue closely,” says Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner.

It’s convenient for Western Conference owners to propose some form of realignment now. The top teams would all but guarantee themselves at least two home playoff games, which can rake in $2 million apiece in gate receipts — and much more in some markets.

But Cuban’s plan would only be temporary, subject to revision as the league’s balance of power shifts, he says. “A shakeup will create interest,” Cuban says. “And after five years, you can learn and adjust from there.”

The imbalance is so severe right now that even an imperfect stopgap measure would be better than granting the East eight playoff teams just because that is what tradition says the NBA must do. Plucking the 16 best teams by overall record, even with the league’s current imbalanced schedule, would do a better job of rewarding teams that most deserve playoff shine.

In an ideal world, you’d balance all 30 team schedules before putting everyone in the same pool for playoff seeding. Teams now play 52 games within their conference and just 30 games against the opposite conference. If every team is competing against every other team for playoff spots, then they should all play more or less the same schedule. That isn’t happening today.

But guess what. The schedule imbalance benefits the East! Those teams get to slap-fight against themselves 52 times! The interconference gap is even larger than it looks. The diciest pitfall of just going with the top 16 teams under the current imbalanced schedule would be rewarding a team that plays an easier overall 82-game slate. But that is already happening. The NBA, at least for now, could scrap conference designations and put the 16 most deserving teams into the playoffs without changing the schedule at all.

If any top-16 system proved too unstable, the league could guarantee slots to the teams with the 12 best records and put the next eight into a mini-tournament to decide the bottom four seeds.1

Any change would appear to be a hard sell for Eastern Conference owners who enjoy playoff revenue.2 There is anxiety around the league over more new owners voting in their teams’ interest rather than thinking league-first — a trend that seized the lottery reform debate and promises to intensify as the NBA discusses changes to its revenue-sharing system.

Some in the anti-change crowd argue that the league’s power structure will eventually flip, and the East will reclaim the supremacy it enjoyed during most of the 1980s. Those people are probably right.

The worst teams are in the East, and the lottery system will eventually shift more of the best draftees to those teams. “The root of the problem,” Cuban says, “is that we have a race to the bottom.”

Older Western Conference stars will retire. The Nets and Knicks, looming big-money juggernauts, will emerge from a purgatory they imposed upon themselves with crazy spending and bad trades. A well-managed team in the West will do some dumb things, suffer bad luck, and become a doormat for 10 years. Star players set to hit free agency know the East is weak, and it takes only a couple of big West-to-East shifts to tilt the league’s axis of power.

People have floated lots of reasons for the West’s long-term superiority, and while those theories have real merit, none of the underlying causes are intractable. If the East will eventually achieve equal footing, why bother with drastic measures like the abolition of conferences or a new playoff seeding system?

But that’s exactly the point. There will always be random imbalances in the league’s macro structure. You don’t want those imbalances to affect which teams get to compete for the championship, and the easiest way to do that is to reserve playoff spots for the 16 best teams. If the Eastern and Central time zones someday sport 12 of the league’s 16 best records, then, by god, those time zones shall get a dozen playoff teams.

The balancing process would accelerate if teams that needed high draft picks the most actually got them. That’s how you sell realignment to East owners who can’t see past playoff gate receipts: Your 35-win first-round roadkill doesn’t get a lottery pick today, but in a 1-to-16 world where conferences don’t matter, you might pick 12th instead of watching the 48-win Suns grin on the lottery dais.

“I’ve had conversations with East playoff teams that end up disappointed in their pick,” Sarver says.

Every part of the NBA ecosystem is linked to all the others; shift one branch, and you shift them all — sometimes by accident. That was the sneaky potential ripple effect of the league’s defeated lottery proposal, which would have given teams at the bottom of the lottery — the “best” lottery teams — a better chance at leaping up the draft order. If the 13th lottery slot is more valuable, then perhaps its value approaches the $4 million or so a team might reap in revenue from two home playoff games. Tilt that equation enough and you’ve shifted the way a team might think about the abolition of conferences or the reconfiguring of playoff seeding.

It might also change the way that teams construct short- and long-term building plans. This is in part what Cuban means when he talks about the “race to the bottom” being the root problem driving conference imbalance and other ugly trends. You can see the vision of a robust meritocracy: more teams trying their hardest and all the best teams getting a chance in the playoffs.

But to really get there, the league would need to balance the schedule. The 52/30 conference split might not affect which teams finish in the top 16 this season, but it absolutely affects the order of finish, and it would have an outsize effect on the composition of the playoff field in some seasons. “While seeding teams 1 to 16 in the playoffs certainly has appeal from a competitive standpoint,” Silver says, “it would not seem fair when teams in different conferences play unbalanced schedules.”

This is where you run into the realities of what it would take for each team to play every other team the same number of times3 over an 82-game schedule. “None of the ideas being floated comes without a significant impact on overall travel, which could ultimately have an adverse impact on the quality of the games,” Silver says.

That goes double for the playoffs, where seeding 1 to 16 raises the specter of multiple cross-country series in the first round — a problem that Tom Ziller noted in this outstanding piece last week. Mega-travel is already a problem in some Western Conference series — a Los Angeles–to-Memphis journey is no fun — and as Ziller notes, perhaps the league could play around with selective application of the 2-3-2 format.

Private travel is easier on players, but switching time zones and trudging into hotels at 4 a.m. is draining regardless.

There is also widespread concern over the potential death of intraconference rivalries that can only be forged over multiple playoff series. Our chances of getting another Grizzlies-Clippers or Cavaliers-Wizards drop if their pool of potential first-round opponents expands from seven to 15. Historic rivalries like Knicks-Celtics or Bulls-Pistons could wither without the occasional postseason nurturing.

That is worth worrying about. But geographic proximity ensures some rivalries will remain strong, and an open playoff system holds the promise of more frequent visits with some classic East-West rivalries. How cool would a Lakers-Celtics first-round series be?4

All of that is secondary to scheduling issues. Several front-office executives suggested a system in which teams play each opponent three times, but that amounts to a monster 87-game schedule with some home/road imbalances. Slashing the preseason would allow for those extra five games, but with all we know now about rest and fatigue, suggesting more games feels wrong — even if it means more money for everyone.

You could achieve some coastal balance in the 82-game schedule by sending teams on super-long road trips that allow for more games against the opposite conference. The Blazers could come East on a three-week trip that includes multiple games, or perhaps even baseball-style two-game “series” against Philly, Boston, Toronto, and the New York teams. Give every team one or two such trips per season, and, boom, you might get something like a balanced schedule.

But it’s unclear how feasible that is. Nobody likes bouncing among hotels for a month. Teams would have to scramble for practice space, increase travel budgets, and deal with other complications. Some arenas are empty for 200-plus days a year, but others are stocked with concerts and events; fitting in a revamped schedule with longer road trips and homestands would prove tricky in some markets.

The silver bullet is slicing games off the schedule. You don’t even need to get down to a 58-gamer in which every team plays everyone else twice, minimizing travel headaches. Every game you lop off from 82 makes it a hair easier to nibble away at schedule imbalances.

That’s obviously not happening anytime soon. Gate receipts are soaring in some markets, and neither players nor owners are eager to give those up. The Knicks approached a record $145 million in net gate receipts last season, nearly $3.5 million per game, and the Lakers pushed $90 million, per several league sources. A bunch of smaller-market teams don’t even sniff $1 million in gate per home game, but that scarcity makes every game feel precious.

The NBA’s mammoth new national TV deal might withstand a schedule slice, since the league could earmark the same number of games for its broadcast partners. But local TV deals are based on teams filling 82 prime-time slots, and several teams are set to negotiate fat new local deals over the next couple of years.

These are the realities that should matter in discussing realignment. They are complicated, with lots of stakeholders. Perfect balance will prove elusive, but it’s time to start talking about imperfect alternatives to the current conference and playoff structure. Chip away enough, and you could build something better than the warped system the league is using now.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Jeff Teague’s Weirdo Isolations

Teague is quietly building an All-Star case for the surging Hawks, with career-best numbers almost across the board. He has taken on a bit more of the team’s scoring burden with Al Horford still finding his way back from injury.

Teague can create for himself now with a one-on-one game that is simultaneously simple and weirdly difficult to defend. Teague just kind of dribbles right at his defender’s chest, works him into a backpedal, and rises up for a floater before the defender can find his balance:

When he’s coming at you, Teague is all elbows and mini-Eurosteps that throw guys off-balance.

2. Golden State’s Switchability

Lots of teams switch on defense in various situations, but the switching can be ad hoc and messy. Two guys miscommunicate and chase the same offensive player, or one defender gets stuck in between switching and staying on his original guy.

Not the Dubs. They almost never screw this up, and given their personnel, switching can be a deadly weapon for their defense. Their starting lineup features three like-size players in Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green who can all swap assignments.

When Steve Kerr goes to his bench, he’ll sometimes play Barnes at power forward with two wing players and a giant point guard in Shaun Livingston. That makes four guys who can switch on the fly, especially since opposing second units rarely feature a power forward who can hurt a smaller player on the block.

There is a real professionalism about this team. Switching is a strategy, one they approach with seriousness and precision. They don’t do it out of laziness or convenience.

3. The Lakers, Jumping Out Too Far

Ed Davis is the only speedy dude among the Lakers’ four rotation big men, but Byron Scott has these guys venturing out near the 3-point arc in a failed effort to contain pick-and-rolls. Good luck, Bob Sacre!

LAKERSHEDGE

Carlos Boozer, Sacre, and Jordan Hill just aren’t capable of this; the Lakers’ league-worst defense would probably be better off if Scott adopted a more conservative style. Hill’s rim protection has been halfhearted, and the team’s starting lineup is getting absolutely torched.

4. Ty Lawson’s Fake Step-Back Jumper

The best moves are built upon the threat of other established moves. Defenses know that Lawson, on fire right now, likes to use the threat of his dribble penetration to get his guy leaning toward the rim — only to yo-yo the ball back and ease into an open step-back jumper. It’s especially useful against bigger guys unfortunate enough to switch themselves onto an island against Lawson.

Bad news: If you’re expecting the step-back and eager to challenge it, Lawson will roast you with this:

5. Philadelphia’s Transition Defense

It’s not as bad as it looks, since Philly plays at a breakneck pace and will inevitably surrender some fast-break buckets; no team has allowed more fast-break points this season, per NBA.com.

But when you consider opponent points per transition chance, the Sixers rank in the middle of the pack — or better. When it goes wrong, it goes horribly, horribly wrong — as you’d expect from a team of youngsters and D-League guys scrambling to find their assignments in the chaos of transition.

Every Sixers game will feature at least one unopposed leak-out, and sometimes an enemy player will trot back to the offensive end, reach the basket, and stand around for a second before realizing no Sixer has noticed his presence. Brett Brown sprinted along the baseline himself during game play last week when a Blazer sneaked behind all five Philly defenders. It looked for a second like Brown might foul the guy to stop play.

6. Trying Out Kyle Lowry’s Post Game

Lowry has already taken more shots out of the post this season (10) than in all of last season (eight), per Synergy Sports, and the Raps might look for him more there with DeMar DeRozan sadly out awhile.

Lowry is never going to be a high-volume post-up guy, and the Drakes have smartly rationed Lowry’s post game so he breaks it out only against smaller defenders like Teague and Trey Burke. Lowry has the, let’s say, posterior heft, aggression, and intellect to create scoring chances for himself and his teammates on the block:

Professor Andre Miller, PhD, proved long ago that you don’t need to be giant to clown suckas on the block.

7. The Derrick Rose–Jimmy Butler Pick-and-Roll

Butler is a no-brainer All-Star as we near the quarter point of the season. He has proven emphatically that he can create his own offense, and the Bulls are leaning on him in all sorts of ways — post-ups, via pin-down screens, and the pick-and-roll.

One intriguing wrinkle that Chicago is using in crunch time: the Rose-Butler pick-and-roll, with Butler as the screener:

Butler is great at those little short rolls, where he kind of fades toward the foul line, catches the ball, and goes straight to the rim with his defender behind him. Butler is smart about leveraging his inside position, but he doesn’t rush, and that allows him to keep the defense off-balance and seek out cutters. Great stuff.

8. Terry Stotts’s Out-of-Timeout Plays

When you watch Portland, pay special attention to the gorgeousness that the red-hot Blazers pull coming out of timeouts. Any measure of scoring efficiency in these situations is going to carry some statistical noise, but over multiple seasons, I’m betting Stotts’s Portland teams will come out near the top.

Stotts is genius about leveraging one player’s strengths to open up things for a teammate, and he keeps defenses guessing with misdirection. And just when a defense is primed for some complex intersecting five-man motion, Stotts will call something so basic that the simplicity of it catches opponents off-guard.

Tune in to these guys. They’re damn good, and fun to watch. Also, Chris Kaman’s beard.

9. Playing “Thunderstruck” Outside of Oklahoma City

It’s a catchy AC/DC song, but now that an NBA team called the “Thunder” has co-opted the tune, it feels a little hokey when you hear it in other arenas. I’m still undecided about playing the “Gonna Fly Now” theme from Rocky outside of Philly.

10. New York’s 3-Point Defense

Nitpicking the triangle and all the resulting midrange jumpers is the go-to story line here, but New York is a mess mostly because of a clueless and undermanned defense yielding open 3s all over the court.

The Knicks are constantly sending needless help from the wrong places at the wrong times, including from shooters stationed along the strong side:

Remember that stuff about Golden State’s pristine communication on defense? The Knicks are the opposite, even though they are switching much less this season under Derek Fisher. Watch here as both Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith linger on Arron Afflalo near the left corner after Afflalo passes the ball, as if they are both guarding him. That forces Shane Larkin to rotate off Lawson and take the suddenly neglected Wilson Chandler; the Nuggets swing it to Lawson, who has the entire shot clock to prep an open corner 3:

The Knicks were never going to have a good defense; they play too many bad defenders. But they are wounding themselves with awful judgment.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Mark Cuban, Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA