The NBA playoffs will begin in mid-April, and participating in the 16-team tournament are the best eight teams from each conference. Notice that I did not say that the best 16 teams in the league are competing. That is because the Pelicans and Suns, who currently sit in the ninth and 10th positions, respectively, in the Western Conference, will see their seasons end in April. These teams are both over .500, but nowadays in the West, that doesn’t get you anywhere. Meanwhile, three teams in the East have lost more games than they have won and still will have a chance to win a world championship this year. Fair? Maybe not. Unfortunate? I’d be the first to agree with you.
The West is just a better conference, plain and simple. Take the Pelicans, for example. New Orleans, led by Anthony Davis, who I think will win an MVP someday, is in last place in the Southwest division and is five games above .500. Memphis, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas will all be in the playoffs this year, making it the only division, as of now, with four teams in the playoff field. That means that the Pelicans have to deal with these great teams a total of sixteen times over the course of the season, more than any other team. To make for a fair comparison, I’ll look for the best conference in the East. It is most definitely the atrocious Atlantic, which houses the Raptors and the potential eight-seeds Nets and Celtics. The Southeast and Central both have three playoff teams, one of which has lost more games than it has won. Those would be the Bucks and the Heat. My point here is that the Pelicans have played a much more difficult schedule and are a better team than the bottom three teams in the Eastern playoffs. My only response to a complaining Pelican fan would be, “You’re right, but play better to get into the playoffs.”
There have been talks in the past about changing the playoff format to further ensure that the best teams are in the playoffs, regardless of conference. I think that putting the 16 teams with the best records in the playoffs is not feasible. For this to work, every team will need to play the same schedule, which is just not going to work due to travel constraints. If every team played a different strength of schedule, then a record wouldn’t really be a measure of how good a team is, would it? We would be entering the dangerous realm of a committee, which the NCAA uses to select teams for the annual March Madness tournament.
An idea I like is decreasing the number of teams in the playoffs. What about having six teams in the playoffs from each conference? The NBA has 30 teams, and the fact that over half of them are in the playoffs is a little much. Pushing the seven- and eight-seeds out of the playoffs will help everyone; those teams will have a lottery pick to get better, and it will heighten the accomplishment of making the playoffs. The top two teams will receive first-round byes, which is a further incentive to finish at the top of the conference standings. I doubt this idea will come to fruition any time soon, if at all, but if there is anything we have learned from Adam Silver, it is that he is much more open-minded than David Stern on issues such as these.
Lastly, I think that this issue of conference inequality is cyclical. In 10 years, we might be talking about how the Pelicans don’t deserve a playoff spot and an Eastern conference team does. For now, finish in the top eight of your conference. End of story.