NBA Western Conference March Madness

NBA Western Conference March MadnessAfter watching the Lakers beat the Mavericks in overtime Sunday afternoon, where Dirk and Kobe went crazy in the 4th quarter in by far the best game of the NBA season, it got me thinking about the parallels between this year’s Western Conference race and the best basketball there is, NCAA March Madness.

Traditionally basketball fans don’t associate March Madness with the NBA and rightfully so.  Usually the top seeds are secure; jockeying for playoff position is at a minimum and is weighted towards the bottom with teams clawing and scratching for the 8th and final spot.  Maybe the biggest reason for the lax and less entertaining end-of-the-season results is teams resting starters and mildly injured players in preparation for a healthy and energized championship run.

This year the depth, parity, high-profile trades and overall strength in the West provides for the most intriguing and significant final quarter of the NBA season in recent memory.  This uncharacteristic turn of events gives both die-hard and casual basketball fans an added bonus to the traditional March Madness of college basketball. 

NBA Western Conference March Madness

  • With so many significant trades, teams need to play their first units to get the new players up-to-speed, get used to the changes, adjust and fine-tune strategies going into the playoffs.50-Win teams & number of games separating the 1-seed from the 8-seed (16-team playoff structure)
  • All 8 Western conference playoff teams are on pace for 50 wins, and Denver, the 9th seed, is on pace for nearly 49.  That will be the most since the NBA went to 16 teams in the playoffs (see chart to the right). When you factor in the top 3 teams in the East the 2007-2008 season overall will have the most 50-win teams during the 16-team playoff era, which is 23 years.
  • Home court becomes significantly more important when teams are this evenly matched.  Only 5.5 games separate the #1 seed from the 8th, and unbelievably there is only a 6.5-game difference between the top spot and not even making the playoffs, being in the 9th spot.  That is even more mind-boggling historically (see chart to the right).

What all that means is the likelihood and number of ultra-competitive close games will be drastically increased down the stretch.  Case in point: Lakers vs. Mavs OT game where you saw great team basketball and the best-of-the-best individual performances.  This is exactly what typifies NCAA March Madness and where the analogy proves true.  As a basketball fan I can’t ask for much more than what’s in store for March 2008.

The Downside

Denver (who as I type just ran around, over and through Phoenix, the 6th seed, by 13) may unfortunately not make the playoffs with 48-49 wins, while their record would be good enough for a 4th seed and home court in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  That is just ridiculous.  The supremacy in the West has taken, in my opinion, the most important aspect out of the NBA Finals – unpredictability.  Without question that is the main reason LeBron James, probably the most recognizable NBA player right now, playing against the best team in basketball and arguably the best power forward EVER in Tim Duncan produced the lowest TV ratings in NBA Finals history!  That’s just sad.

Seven of the last nine NBA champions have been from the West.  And I think it’s safe to assume during that 9-year stretch only three Finals had the unpredictability factor – 2004, 2005 and 2006 with Detroit dominating the Lakers in ’04 being a monumentally unexpected turn of events.

That dominance has brought up a plethora of new and interesting ideas to change the current playoff structure.  They range from minor tweaks to wholesale changes like eliminating conference designations and having the top 16 teams in the entire league get in the playoffs. 

I agree with this line of thinking – to a degree. 

The Fix

In 2006 the league changed the seeding format so the top 2 teams in each conference couldn’t meet until the conference finals, avoiding another premature match-up among top teams like what happened with the Spurs/Mavs in ’05-’06.  That was a good step.  The West’s massacre of the East over the last 9 years coupled with decreased viewership of the NBA Finals makes it apparent that another step may be in order.

Let me express two quick points about this before I share the best idea I’ve heard: 

  1. I am not about change just for the sake of change
  2. Changing the playoff structure is not, let me repeat not, simply because the West has dominated of late.  Western Conference superiority is nothing more than a current trend that will eventually correct itself naturally through the draft, free agency and retirements.  Basic ebb and flow.  The point is to increase overall competitiveness, excitement and, most importantly, that unpredictability factor especially during the lopsided seasons.

John Hollinger wrote a very interesting article (ESPN Insider restricted) last year during the dreadful Spurs/Cavs bore fest about just that – tweaking the NBA playoff structure.  For the many of you who aren’t as relationship-threatening obsessed with sports like I am and don’t have ESPN Insider, here is the gist of the proposal:

“[The NBA] should play West versus East in the first round, not the last.”

The regular season would play out just as it does now. Then the league would seed the teams 1 to 8 in each conference, just as it does now.

Then it changes — the two conferences would cross-match in the playoffs, so every series is set up to be East versus West. Of course, in those cases when the lower-seeded West team is able to eliminate the higher-seeded East team, then we would have West versus West, which means this system would be working exactly as intended: We would have the stronger teams meeting in the later rounds, regardless of conference. – John Hollinger, ESPN insider

Essentially this idea is creating a tournament-style bracket for the entire league.  Although this proposal completely shatters my Sixers upset dreams, it would bring Kobe to Philly for the first round, as you’ll see below, and has the added benefit of a much more interesting and worth-watching playoffs, from start to finish, making up for my Sixers disappointment – a little.

2008 Bracket Under This Proposal (as of 3/6/08)

“East” Half

(1E) Boston vs. (8W) Golden State

(4W) Utah vs. (5E) Toronto

(2W) Los Angeles vs. (7E) Philadelphia

(3E) Orlando vs. (6W) Phoenix

“West” Half

(1W) San Antonio vs. (8E) New Jersey

(4E) Cleveland vs. (5W) Houston

(2E) Detroit vs. (7W) Dallas

(3W) New Orleans vs. (6E) Washington

How is that not a much better playoff picture?  The “East” and “West” finals would potentially be Boston vs. LA and SA vs. Detroit.  Aren’t those the best teams in the NBA right now?  One way or another, the two best teams will survive and play for the championship.  Who cares about conferences when it comes to the Finals?  It’s about being the best team in the entire league, and I don’t think the players or coaches would have much of a problem with that.  In fact some have already expressed their approval with simply having the 16 best teams make the playoffs when posed that question by reporters.

The major problem with this plan is travel and TV scheduling.  To me those issues are just minor and insignificant details considering the big picture.  The NBA is a for-profit business.  And if viewership and ratings continue to decrease because of weak entertainment value (unpredictability factor) adopting a proposal like this would be a smart business decision from a league executive perspective.  Better product for the customer = more $$ for the NBA. 

Most importantly, this system would be just as effective in times when the conferences aren’t as uneven as they have been in recent years.  That thought supports my earlier point that a new playoff structure shouldn’t be just about fixing East or West dominance.  Rather, create the most competitive playoffs possible regardless of conference lopsidedness.

Make sense?  Good idea – bad idea?  Either way lets get ready for some amazing NBA basketball.

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18 Responses

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  2. […] Dannie wrote a fantastic post today on “NBA Western Conference March Madness”Here’s ONLY a quick extract(2W) Los Angeles vs. (7E) Philadelphia. (3E) Orlando vs. (6W) Phoenix. “West” Half. (1W) San Antonio vs. (8E) New Jersey. (4E) Cleveland vs. (5W) Houston. (2E) Detroit vs. (7W) Dallas. (3W) New Orleans vs. (6E) Washington … […]

  3. Great Post!

    Thanks for the league history stats. I had the feeling this was the most exciting regular season in NBA history – even better than 2001 where there were 7 50-game winners in the West.

    With regard to reworking the playoff system, any modifications would have to minimize travel and scheduling problems while address the following issues:

    1) The best four teams should be seeded to make their conference finals, but that doesn’t mean the top two records have to meet in the finals. East vs. West is still intriguing (i.e. Lakers-Celtics, Spurs-Celtics, Lakers-Pistons). However, in cases like last year, where the #1 team in the East would have been #4 in the West, in spite of playing a weaker schedule, some adjustment needs to be made.

    2) Teams with losing records in the East can still make the playoffs, while potential 50-game winners in the West may be left out (this is not addressed in Hollinger’s proposal, which is a major flaw)

    3) Regional rivalries are still a key in maintaining fan interest (witness the Lakers-Kings game – the Kings are still good on their home floor, beating Detroit, Phoenix and San Antonio and the energy and ferocity they brought against the Lakers was awesome.)

    4) A division title should still count for something – even if it is the Atlantic division before this season.

    Here is a playoff system that does more than simply seeding the top 8 teams in each conference and then playing an NCAA style tournament:

    1) Each division winner gets a seed and stays within their conference. However, if a division winner does not have the third best record in their conference, or the other conference sends over a stronger team (see #2), they get a #4 seeding, and may have to give up home court advantage to their opponent.

    2) The top 4 non-division winning teams with the best records get the remaining top seedings in each conference. If there is a situation where one conference is visibly stronger, this will result in the dominant conference sending teams to the other conference. (For example, in 2006-2007, San Antonio would have been the #1 seed in the East, which means we probably would have seen a San Antonio-Phoenix final.)

    3) Remaining teams are seeded and left in their original conferences.

    4) The Feed-in (my tip of the hat to the NCAA): whenever a conference has an available playoff spot left to a team with a losing record, they have to play a feed-in game with the team right behind them. Since these kinds of teams historically get swept in the first round, the Feed-in game will be the only significant playoff game these poor fans will ever get to see!

    5) Go back to 5-game series in the first round. The Feed-in game (s) will take a couple of days, so the good teams can get some rest.

    Based on this system we get more competition, a more manageable schedule, less travel, and retain most of the traditional rivalries. Only two Western Conference teams get sent East and Houston is already in the center of the country, so there is really only one cross country playoff series:

    West:
    SA (1) v. Port (8)
    LA (2) v. Den (7)
    N.O (3) v. GSW (6)
    Utah (4) v. Dal (5)

    East:
    Bos (1) v. Feedin Winner (Washington-Philadelphia)
    Det (2) v. Tor (7)
    Hou (3) v. Cle (6)
    Orl (4) v. Pho (5)

    As you can see, teams with winning records like Denver and Portland – with wins over the Lakers, Dallas, New Orleans, Detroit, Utah (2), Golden State (2) and Denver (2) – would make the playoffs. Every team over .500 gets in the playoffs, while the Feed-in gives losing bubble teams one last shot at getting in.

    From the perspective of competition, it is more balanced (I think there would be something wrong with Detroit-Dallas in the first round as described in the Recliner GM Sports Blog, while the Lakers would get a weak team like Philadelphia).

    Finally, there is the chance for more rivalry series like Utah-Dallas in the first round and potential match-ups like San Antonio-Dallas, Detroit-Cleveland, Boston-Orlando and Los Angeles-Golden State in the following round, with the Conference Finals still ending with Boston-Detroit and L.A.-San Antonio.

  4. awesome post, loved the #1 vs #8 win differential and like the reseeded playoff format

  5. Lon – Fantastic comment/ideas I can’t argue with most of your plan. I especially love going back to 5 games in the first round and the play-in game idea ALOT. I might also suggest expanding that idea if the 8th and 9th teams have identical records AND even head-to-head wins. I am not a big fan of the other tie-breaker rules. Just have them play for it.

    The one thought I have in terms of evaluating great ideas like these: I am not sure the NBA decision-makers would ever adopt a structure that didn’t have equal representation from both conferences – even if it was only a 9-7 draw. Otherwise there’s not much stopping a proposed playoff structure that just put the top 16 teams in the entire NBA in the playoffs – basically rewarding the teams that won the most. If my thought is accurate and the league stands by equal representation that would enevitably keep sub .500 teams in the playoffs . Therefore any proposed plan probably should retain the 8-8 representation in each conference and strive to maximize competitiveness within those constraints..

    Lon, again great insight and we hope to have more great comments like that in the future.

  6. My idea for the NBA playoffs would be very simple. The top 16 teams in the league qualify, and would be assigned a playoff spot according to their winning percentage. it would be as follows:

    #1 Boston vs. #16 Washington
    #2 Detroit vs. #15 Portland
    #3 San Antonio vs. #14 Toronto
    #4 L.A. Lakers vs. #13 Cleveland
    #5 New Orleans vs. #12 Denver
    #6 Houston vs. #11 Golden State
    #7 Phoenix vs. #10 Orlando
    #8 Utah vs. #9 Dallas

    Then, when the first round is completed, the teams would be re-seeded for the quarter-finals with the highest-remaining seed vs. the lowest remaining seed, the 2nd-highest vs. the 2nd-lowest, 3rd-highest vs. 3rd-lowest, and 4th-highest vs. 4th-lowest.

    Then, the teams would be re-seeded for the semi-finals: highest seed vs. lowest seed, and 2nd-highest vs. 2nd-lowest.

    Then, the finals would be held.

  7. I simply don’t see why teams such as Denver (a team with a .600+ winning percentage) and Portland (over .500) should be kept out of the playoffs, while two sub-.500 teams like New Jersey and Philadelphia are allowed to continue.

    Under my playoff structure, Washington would be the only sub-.500 team that would qualify. I don’t care if there are 10 teams from the West and 6 from the East that qualify. Winning teams should be rewarded.

  8. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

  9. That would make for a more competitive finals. It seems like every year the Western conference finals is pretty much the NBA Finals, except in 2004 and 2006.

  10. Another great thing about my system is that it includes all of the would-be division champions:

    (a) Boston – (Atlantic)
    (b) Detroit – (Central)
    (c) San Antonio – (Southwest)
    (d) L.A. Lakers – (Pacific)
    (e) Utah – (Northwest)
    (f) Orlando – (Southeast)

    However, win-loss records would still hold more weight than division championships.

  11. Tommy – That has been all the talk this year. Just take the 16 teams regardless of conference and put them in the playoffs. I am ok with that idea although there are drawbacks.

    1.) I just never think the league would adopt that system because of equal representation – obviously I could be wrong on that thought.

    2.) More weaker teams will be inclined to quit on the season earlier. For example my Philadelphia 76ers are in the hunt for a 6-8 playoff spot in the East. Under your and related top 16 systems the current 7-9 teams in the East have essentially no chance which begs the question – why keep competing. This will basically foster more tanking at the end of the year. I think this is a MAJOR point that is getting overlooked, even by me. Which I might expand on in another post. It took enlightening by my gf to focus me on that thought.

    I do have to ask, why all the reseeding?

  12. Dannie –

    For the same reason the NFL does it with their playoffs: to reward the highest-seeded playoff teams remaining by giving them weaker opponents.

  13. I have one solution where my playoff system would work. But, it would require a number of other things.

    Re-aligning the divisions:
    Merge the Atlantic and Central divisions into one conference (Eastern or Northern).
    Merge the Southeast and Southwest divisions into one conference (Southern).
    Merge the Northwest and Pacific divisions into one conference (Western).

    Altering the schedule:
    Have each team play 4 games against each of their 9 conference rivals, totaling 36 conference games.
    And have each team play 2-4 games against each of their non-conference opponents. The number of games they play would be determined by their finish from the previous season.
    If you finish in the top two in your conference, you would play 4 games against the top two teams from each of the other conferences, totaling 16 games. And they would play 2 games against each of the other 16 non-conference opponents, totaling 32. That’s a grand total of 48 non-conference games.
    Under my formula, the Lakers (for example) would play the following:
    Conference:
    4 vs. Minnesota, 4 vs. Seattle, 4 vs. Clippers,
    4 vs. Sacramento, 4 vs. Portland, 4 vs. Denver,
    4 vs. Utah, 4 vs. Golden State, and 4 vs. Phoenix.
    Non-conference:
    4 vs. San Antonio, 4 vs. New Orleans, 4 vs. Detroit,
    4 vs. Boston, and 2 against each of their other non-conference opponents next season.

    Fix the 1st-round of the playoffs:
    To make up for the 84-game schedule, reduce the 1st-round to a best-of-5 or a best-of-3 series.

  14. The whole point to my system is to have all teams play against each other throughout the season (as the Commissioner wants it), and to also put an even greater emphasis on division/conference games. Remember, teams currently play only 16 of their 82 regular season games against opponents in their 5-team divisions. Under my system you play 36 games against teams opponents in 10-team conferences.

    Another thing I wanted to do was bring about more rivalries between the best teams in the league. Some great non-conference rivalries would include the ones I just mentioned, plus Celtics vs. Suns, Celtics vs. Spurs, as other examples. These types of rivalries with these teams as they are would bring in bigger attendance figures, better ratings for television and radio, and more merchandise purchases. Namely, more money for the league.

  15. It also means more money for the networks and the sponsors.

  16. Tommy – not a fan of reseeding at all and am glad the NBA hasn’t adopted that philosophy. I don’t like the idea of forcing a lower seed who beats a powerhouse or higher seed (Golden State last year) to go play another higher seed and just to “reward” another powerhouse. Leave the seeding as it is, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

    You are out of control Tommy, haha. We have went from “tweaking” the playoff structure to changing and reorganizing the entire NBA. That is a whole other post and discussion.

  17. Dannie –

    I didn’t say that my idea for re-seeding the teams after every round in the playoffs would be a winner of an idea with everybody. I’m just saying what I would do.

    And when it comes to the divisions and conferences, I don’t see how anybody could consider a division championship worth much if they only play 16 of their 82 regular season games against division opponents. I thought that by integrating six divisions into three conferences, this arrangement would help.

    Although we would be treated to Hornets vs. Spurs or Suns vs. Lakers or Pistons vs. Cavaliers 8 times during the regular season if we doubled the number of division games while keeping the current divisional alignment, we would also be saddled with 8 games of Bobcats vs. Heat, and Timberwolves vs. Sonics. And, I’m pretty sure that nobody wants to play the same 2 teams play each other 8 times during the regular season in the NBA, especially if one or both teams are losing and playing poorly. It’s likely that they don’t want to face the same team more than 4 times per regular season. Another advantage under my divisional alignment and scheduling system would be the fact that you would see more interesting rivalries between the best teams such as Celtics vs. Lakers and they would meet 4 times per regular season, while meetings between cellar-dwellers such as Knicks vs. Grizzlies would be limited to 4 times per season (although, I would like to see even less of that). I’ m willing to bet that more people would rather pay good money to see Celtics vs. Lakers as they are now.

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