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Should the NBA get rid of conferences for the sake of parity?

Adam Silver

As the Golden State Warriors won another NBA title after a third-straight NBA Finals clash against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the debate on whether or not the NBA should abolish conferences is rekindled once more.

Commissioner Adam Silver is known to be a proponent for change; always open at considering suggestions aimed toward the larger goal of making the NBA the best professional sports league there is. To an extent, the NBA is indeed just that, having a greater global audience than any of the other major North American sports and by basically turning basketball as only second behind soccer for the distinction of the most famous sport in the entire world.

Getting rid of the NBA’s conferences – or even divisions – is not a fresh concept that’s come to Silver’s attention. And yet just this month during a press conference at a Summer League event, Silver was once again asked about the prospects of overhauling the league’s status quo to promote parity between the generally mediocre collection of teams in the East and the seemingly overpowered teams from the West:

Silver brought up ideas such as a 16-team playoff format and a possible relegation system akin to soccer’s current practice. However, he concluded that these major shake-ups are “not at the top of the agenda right now”.

Frankly, Silver was right not to address the alternatives to the NBA’s current structure as pressing matters, and here are a few reasons why:

Logistics and the proposed playoff format itself

Taken from the video above, the team of ESPN’s The Jump had a discussion in light of Silver’s comments. They raised one of the major issues that’ll arise in the event that conferences are no longer existent, which is the taxing travel required during the postseason and how it would affect the proposed 16-team playoff format that.

The Jump’s panel isn’t fond of the idea that East Coast teams might have to travel to the West Coast (and vice-versa) as early as the opening round of the postseason, which essentially takes away some of the supposed advantage that the higher-seeded teams earned in the regular season. They also did a draft of what the 2017 postseason would look like under the 16-team playoff format, and it turned out that the all 16 teams in the league that had the best records this past regular season were the same teams that ended up qualifying in the actual playoffs, which pretty much debunks the perception that the Western Conference has more winning ball clubs.

Warriors

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Geographical proximity, be it in terms of divisions or conferences, has been in effect for so long because of the travel required throughout an entire season’s schedule. The NFL, MLB, NHL, as well as college basketball and football, all have the same territorial groupings implemented in their system mainly for the same reason.

We’ll never hear the likes of the Detroit Lions whining about having to play the Green Bay Packers twice in the regular season, or how the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are fed up with one another. Divisions and conferences make for better rivalries by way of familiarity. It’s just that the NBA’s best rivalry between the Warriors and the Cavs doesn’t happen until the Finals itself, with these two basketball juggernauts happening to draw the best out of each other to make for the most compelling matchup in the NBA right now.

To take matters a step further, a 16-team playoff format will feel like a Grand Slam tournament in tennis; albeit that the NBA’s postseason begins in the fourth round in parralel to the comparison. However, most of the top-seeded tennis players in Grand Slam tourneys are often still in play in the fourth round despite having gone through three prior rounds of action from a field of 128 entrants. 128! Those tennis players have to endure these steep uphill battles four times a year in Grand Slam events, which means the true contenders must always be at the top of their game to avoid any and all upsets along their paths.

And yet, basketball fans are complaining about the lack of parity between the eight teams on each side of the playoff bracket.

Celtics

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Recent trends speak otherwise, and the impact of the internet

This decade, Western Conference teams have won five of the last eight NBA titles, which is almost close to an even split with the East. And in the six seasons prior to 2010, the East and the West have championed three teams apiece on alternate years.

One could argue that the West’s Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs have had a strangehold of the NBA since the new millennium. However, didn’t the East also have dynasties of past with Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the 90’s and to an extent Larry Bird‘s Boston Celtics in the 80’s? Why is it that nobody clamored for a change in the league format when certain teams were just as dominant during those eras?

This day and age, online social media plays a huge role in how sporting organizations react to their respective fanbases. Just about everybody’s cheers and tears could be heard, except the latter usually bears more weight and attention than the former. Strangely enough, there wasn’t a huge outcry for change when the Celtics formed the Big Three in the late 2000’s and when the Miami Heat technically built the first superteam soon after. The internet’s been around long enough during these periods, so why didn’t the masses complain about the Celtics and Heat being so dominant then as opposed to the current landscape being helmed by the Warriors and Cavs?

The NBA is trying to appease all of its fans who’ve made their voices heard, but what the league may not know is that these voices will never cease to express their discontent about the norm.

Bulls

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With theory and history working against the request for change, it’s time to find out the root of the NBA’s problem. It’s not really the league’s machine as a whole, but a handful of clunky cogs –mostly from the East – that are hindering the machine’s desired optimal level of performance.

There are a handful of Eastern Conference teams that made some of the most baffling decisions in recent memory. The Bulls traded away their best player, Jimmy Butler, to the Minnesota Timberwolves for next to nothing. The Orlando Magic got the short end of the stick as well when they dealt Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors. Legendary head coach Phil Jackson sent the New York Knicks organization into a downward spiral. And the Atlanta Hawks – Eastern Conference champs just a couple of years ago – will likely regret mentioning that Dennis Schroder is now their best player on the roster.

Not to say that the West doesn’t have its own black sheep – the Sacramento Kings, who shipped their one and only superstar DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans, is a prime example. But in general, most of the bad deals are being made by teams from the right-hand side of the United States.

In turn, it’s hard to fault the likes of the Warriors and the Spurs for respectively having Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich as their players’ mentors along with competent upper management staff to keep their teams from bottoming out. Inversely, the East does have its fair share of franchises that know what their doing. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are doing a wonderful job in Boston, and the Heat are still relatively competitive despite losing the last piece of its championship-winning puzzle in Dwyane Wade.

Steve Kerr Gregg Popovich

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Even if money plays a significant role on how a team operates, it’s still no excuse for being incompetent. A team must know how to balance the lines between business savvy, roster talent and player development. That’s why the Cavaliers have more doubters next season despite being the favorites in the East once more by virture of having the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James. Owner Dan Gilbert is known to be a shrewd executive, and it is he who destabilizes the expections coming out of Cleveland.

All of the triumphs and shortcomings in the NBA aren’t solely attributed to the players on the courts. Rather, every single person within a team’s organization plays a crucial role in the grand scheme of things.

It’s about time for these disappointing teams from the East to actually get good and learn from their past mistakes. The entire league is having an arms race to see who’ll build the best roster, so those on the losing end of the spectrum have no one else to blame but themselves – not the NBA or its current format – for not keeping up with the times or getting a fair shake out of their dealings.