he NBA's Eastern Conference is worse than Andrew Bynum's hairdos.
If the playoffs started today, five Eastern Conference teams with losing records would go to the postseason. In the league's history, no more than three sub-500 teams from a single conference have ever done snuck in.
The Western Conference, by contrast, is about as strong as it's ever been. Consider this: The Denver Nuggets are currently in line for the eighth and final playoff seed in the West; they'd be the number three seed if they played in the East.
There are only two teams in the entire Western Conference that have worse records than the East's eighth seed, the Toronto Raptors. In other words, every team save two in the West could have a playoff spot were they based in the East.
So yeah, there's great disparity between the conferences right now. And as a result, there have been some calls for eliminating the conference alignment altogether.
On the surface, that's a nice idea. It would mitigate the odds of bad teams sneaking into the playoffs from weak conferences, ensure the playoffs have the most deserving teams, and so on.
But the push for such a radical realignment is a myopic one that overlooks the league's season-to-season parity.
Yes, the Eastern Conference is historically awful this year. Through early December, the conference as a whole had a 43.2 percent winning percentage and just a 29.2 percent wining percentage against the West. Over a full season, that would be the biggest disparity between the two conferences since 1960 — when the East won more than 70 percent of its games against the West.
That gets at the problem with decrying imbalance in a given season. What often drives disparity in the NBA is that basketball, more than any other major sport, is prone to dynasties (bear with me here, Yankees fans).
In basketball, one superstar can alone make his team a title contender — think Michael Jordan or LeBron James. By contrast, other sports rely far more on the efforts of an entire team to be competitive. It's why Barry Bonds, for all his (alleged) juicing and home runs, never won a title. And it's why Peyton Manning, despite being one of the best quarterbacks ever, has won one Super Bowl title while his inarguably less talented kid brother has won two.
In the 1960s, the Celtics won nine titles in ten years, and in the 1990s,the Bulls won six in eight. And in those decades, the East generally beat up on the West. In the last decade and change though, the dynasties have come from the West.
With its dynastic tendencies, the league is prone to having one conference dominate the other from time to time. In other words, when you have the Spurs and Lakers winning almost 70 percent of their games for a decade straight, its going to screw with inter-conference parity.
But that doesn't mean the conferences should be thrown out. It just means that a few great teams can so skew the imbalance as to make it look laughable.
On the whole, the league actually has pretty decent parity from season to season, compared to other major sports. That's because, with just one good draft or trade, teams can turn from basement-dwellers to true contenders. The Boston Celtics won less than 30 percent of their games in 2006-07 and finished with the second-worst record in the league. Then they picked up Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the offseason and won a title the very next year.
Then there's the problem with focusing on this year as a case for nuking the conferences.
The East was supposed to be good in 2013 — or at least better than it is now. The Knicks and Nets were supposed to challenge the Heat for dominance, but both have been beset by injuries and rec league coaching. The Bulls were supposed to be a fearsome team too, but then Derrick Rose went and blew out his other knee.
But why not just kill the conferences and ensure this gross imbalance, even if it's fluky, never happens again? Well, it would make the playoff travel schedule a logistical nightmare. And though the league has no true rivalries anymore, the conference format at least adds a another layer of competition to the playoff picture, when you have teams fighting each other for the last spots in two smaller conferences rather than one huge pool.
A more reasonable proposition would be to do away with divisions, something incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver has, to an extent, endorsed. Or the NBA could just bar teams with losing records from the playoffs, and then give a few good teams automatic byes to the second round.
Bad teams are going to make the postseason every year no matter what. With a 16-team field coming out of a 30-team league, someone below the median will always get in.
Wanting to kill the conferences may sound great if you're a fan of a Western Conference team on the bubble. But in practice, it would turn the league into a shapeless blob for no real reason than to ensure a marginally better team gets the honor of being blown out in the first round.
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