The argument for eliminating the NBA’s conference playoffs

Austin Dykstra, Writer

The NBA does not shy away from change. Viewed as the most progressive league among the four major sports, the NBA made considerable changes to the game, including alterations to the All-Star game format, the implementation of a coach’s challenge and the elimination of automatic top-4 playoff berths to division winners.

The motivation behind eliminating division-winner seeding was simple: the NBA rewarded lesser teams based on geographic location rather than merit. In 2015, the 51-31 Portland Trailblazers occupied the fourth seed despite having the sixth-best record in the Western Conference. While Portland didn’t possess home-court advantage against the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs (55-27) were pushed to the sixth-seed, where they faced off against the third-seeded Clippers.

This same principle applies to the NBA’s current playoff format, with teams upward of 20 games below .500 jockeying for playoff position in a historically weak Eastern Conference.

As early as 2015, NBA commissioner Adam Silver discussed the possibility of a 1-16 playoff seeding format, which would see the top 16 teams qualify for the playoffs absent of conference discrimination

“Ultimately, we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” said Silver. And there is an imbalance and a certain unfairness… A lot of owners have strong feelings on it, but I think it is an area where we need to make a change.”

While rumors surrounding a potential change gained momentum over the last couple of years, no official vote has been put on the table.

There has been little parity between the two conferences over the last 20-plus years, and the current format routinely cheats strong teams out of the playoff berths. A glaring example of the NBA’s misplaced marriage to conference alignment occurred during the 2007-08 NBA season, when the 48-win Golden State Warriors infamously missed the playoffs in a congested Western Conference. Had the Warriors played in the East, they would have earned home-court advantage as the fourth seed.

In a 1-16 playoff format, the Warriors would have faced the 56-win San Antonio Spurs in a 5-12 matchup. The 37-win Atlanta Hawks making the playoffs while a 48-win team was excluded exposed a glaring flaw in the structure of the NBA playoffs.

However, potential issues could arise should the NBA implement a 16-seed playoff structure. The NBA would likely need to toy with regular season scheduling, as teams currently play significantly more in-conference games than out of conference. Such a change could cause travel issues, extended road trips and frequent time zone changes.

During All-Star Weekend in 2018, then-Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James offered support for the current playoff format.

“I think our league has been built the right way when it comes to the postseason,” said James “There’s been dominant conferences throughout time. It changes the landscape of the history of the game if you start messing with seedings and playoffs.”

As expressed by James, the NBA’s storied tradition would be a casualty of a proposed change to the NBA playoffs. However, when a system presents the possibility of awarding playoff contention to lesser teams, changes need to happen.

At the end of the day, fans want the best teams competing against one another in the playoffs. More importantly, fans want the best two teams to compete for the grandest prize. Under the current format, the two best teams often encounter one another in the conference finals rather than the NBA finals.

In 15 of the last 20 years, one conference has had the top two teams in terms of regular season record. In that time, the top two teams have not met in the NBA Finals.

In order to fix the glaring imbalance that conference alignment has historically produced, a 1-16 playoff format must be applied to ensure parity throughout the league.