There goes Adam Silver again, solving the world’s problems—or at least making everyone believe he’s solving them.
The NBA commissioner was asked last week during a preseason trip to China if the league was still considering reformatting the playoff seeds 1-16, regardless of conference. Now that Silver, Chris Paul and Michael Jordan have addressed the All-Star Game, next up is the nearly two-decade run of conference imbalance that has tainted the NBA postseason.
As with any change, though, there are unintended consequences. And in this case, there are a lot of them.
And a lot of moving parts.
“Reformatting the playoffs is something we’ll continue to look at,” Silver told reporters last week before an NBA exhibition in Shanghai. “I think, though, it would require revisiting the regular-season schedule as well. As I’ve said before, we don’t play a balanced schedule now. … That means that teams in the East play each other more than they play teams in the West. Our feeling is, if we were going to seed 1 through 16, we would need to play a balanced schedule to make it fair for everyone.”
Silver is well-intentioned on this issue, and open-minded, too—as he is on most agenda items that could, in theory, make the league better. But despite his willingness to discuss postseason reformatting, multiple people familiar with league discussions say it’s not anywhere near the top of the agenda.
There are many problems, but the biggest one is the most obvious: travel.
“The whole issue is transportation,” an Eastern Conference GM told Bleacher Report. “How do you start flying teams across the country in the first round?”
According to one of the people familiar with the discussions, 1-16 seeding would result in approximately 18 percent of pre-Finals series crossing three time zones (or an average of 2-3 series per postseason). At a time when the league has gone to great lengths to reduce travel stress on the players, the impact would be felt in the form of about 35,000 miles of extra postseason travel.
Ed Küpfer @EdKupfer
NBA 2017-18 Season: Miles traveled by each team over the whole season. https://t.co/YSeq3rtFY2
Under Silver, the league has made great strides in limiting physical stress on the players, minimizing flights that cross three time zones, limiting back-to-backs and eliminating four games in five nights this season for the first time in league history. The consequences of 1-16 seeding would fly in the face of that.
It gets even worse when you consider the league’s desire to balance the regular-season schedule so that seeding the playoff teams without regard to conference would be more equitable. Though no one knows exactly how a balanced schedule would look, it’s been estimated that it would add about 150,000 additional travel miles league-wide over the course of the season.
“People say, ‘They fly on charters,’ and everything else,” the Eastern Conference GM said. “But you start talking about having to go to the Bay Area or Portland, that’s tough travel for an Eastern Conference team.”
This is not to say the league doesn’t acknowledge that conference imbalance has been an issue, or that it hasn’t looked carefully at ways to fix it.
After the 2014-15 season, which represented the height of the problem, the league closely examined the possibility of reformatting the playoffs. That season marked the 12th time in 15 years when at least one team from the West missed the playoffs with a better record than the eighth-seeded team in the East. That year, it happened to two teams: the 45-win Thunder and 39-win Suns, who both had better records than the eighth-seeded Nets, who won 38 games.
With so much talent heading to the West in recent years, the conferences feel more unbalanced than ever—but the trend has actually stabilized. Since the league studied the issue in 2015, only one team has missed the playoffs with a top-16 record—and that was an Eastern Conference team: the Bulls in 2015-16.
After its analysis of the issue in ’15, the league concluded that, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t sensible to change the playoff format. The two key factors, according to league sources, were 1) travel; and 2) a belief among league officials that conference imbalance was a temporary trend that would correct itself, as it typically has in the past.
MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press
“The Bulls were the Warriors of yesteryear,” another Eastern Conference executive told B/R. “Nobody was touching the Bulls and it was the same thing: ‘The East is superior and the West is cake.’ I’ve seen both sides, feast and famine. … The big picture view is that you know that things always balance out.”
Even if the league somehow found a way to mitigate the travel nightmares, the question then becomes: How do you balance the schedule? It’s mathematically impossible with 30 teams and 82 games.
“There’s no magic in an 82-game season,” Silver said. “I think it’s not a change you’re going to see in the short term, but I think when we step back and look holistically at our schedule and how the playoffs are seeded, we should look at the entire format.”
Nobody is looking to add games to the schedule, so balancing it would necessitate shortening it. As an example, teams played 73 percent of their games within the conference (48 of 66) during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. In a typical 82-game schedule, they play 63 percent of games within the conference (52 of 82).
But to see why this is a non-starter, all you have to do is follow the money. Fewer games would mean less content for the NBA’s broadcast and digital partners—and, in theory, less money for the players. That wouldn’t be acceptable to either party.
Unless…the league could replace the regular-season games lost with something better.
Here’s an idea I floated in 2015, when conference imbalance was all the rage: At the end of the regular season, rank the teams 1-18 and have a single-elimination tournament to determine the 16th seed.
In other words, March Madness in April. The 17th- and 18th-place teams would play each other in an elimination game, with the winner playing the 16th-place team to determine who would face the Warriors in the first round.
The play-in tournament could be held at a neutral site to ease travel (Las Vegas, the NBA’s summer home, comes to mind). A weekend of win-or-go-home basketball certainly would eclipse any excitement lost by the necessary reduction in regular-season games. Broadcast and digital partners would get more (and better) content, and the league would have another marquee event it could use to generate revenue and engage fans.
The alternative? Rather than disrupt the entire league and flip decades of precedent on its head, wait patiently for the conferences to balance out again.
“The East and West balance fluctuates back and forth,” Silver said. “It hasn’t moved as quickly back to the East as it has historically, but at the end of the day we want to produce the best possible competition. So we’ll keep examining it.”
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Silver has taken full advantage of technology and social media’s ability to make the world much smaller. But when it comes to reseeding the postseason, there’s no getting around the fact that you need a plane, a lot of fuel and a lot of weary players to get from one coast to the other.
“It’s impossible to have Portland play Miami in the first round and play another East Coast team in the second round,” one of the Eastern Conference executives said. “It doesn’t make any sense. If you want to see a bad product, go ahead.”
And that’s where the discussion dies. Making the game worse is the one issue on which Silver isn’t so open-minded.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.