The playoffs are supposed to be a fight to the death between the top teams in the league. Elite level competition. The vast majority of series thus far have lacked something, though.
Instead of being ultra-competitive, they are instead highlighting the growing gap between a small pack of dominant squads and a growing middle ground of basketball purgatory where “good” teams, who had to fight tooth and nail, extend their season by a week or so.
There are four key squads who are dominating this season (or in the case of one of them, had dominated): Golden State, Cleveland, OKC and San Antonio.
Think back to last October. Outside of this group, who else did you have pegged to challenge for the title? (And no disrespect to Toronto but, even tied at 2-2, can you really see them coming out of the East given their struggles with consistency?)
Being top heavy is not a new “issue” for the league, with only a couple or, at most, a handful of franchises having a legitimate shot at glory each year. But the teams that are at the top right now are all the product of something we haven’t really seen before – all four are arguably there thanks to tanking.
The Spurs are still reaping the rewards of tanking for Tim Duncan in 1997 and have five championships as a result. Cleveland tanked for LeBron James in 2003 and after all was lost when he ran to Miami, somehow find themselves in an even better position upon his return (two number one and a number two pick helps).
Oklahoma (then Seattle) tanked in 2007 and 2008 to land Durant and Westbrook. Even the Warriors tanked and found themselves landing Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in 2012.
Whilst tanking to win is not an exact science, nor does it guarantee success, could you really say that these four squads would be where they are now without it?
Over the years, the NBA has introduced a variety of tweaks to try and level the playing field amongst franchises: salary caps, luxury tax, revenue sharing etc. have all created a parity in the spending power of teams in the free agent market.
Couple this with social media allowing athletes to cultivate a global following from anywhere, and suddenly the bright lights of New York and Los Angeles are not as captivating as they once were to players looking to boost their brand.
But all these adjustments have focussed on the top end of the NBA, and herein lies the problem.
Parity amongst teams would mean that every night of the year, any team has a legitimate shot at winning. Parity would mean the last few weeks of the NBA season have a purpose, as teams continue to fight for seedings. Parity would be four rounds of close games in the playoffs. That is not this NBA.
Whilst the aforementioned tweaks have meant that new teams are clamouring for the pedestal, it hasn’t made the league necessarily more competitive. Perhaps the focus of these changes should have been on the bottom end of the league, rather than the top.
If the league restructured the draft lottery they could prevent, or at least discourage, franchises being rewarded for deliberately failing.
So let’s throw a couple of quick ideas out there as to how this can be fixed.
1. Guidelines could be set as to what tanking looks like – and teams could have their odds of landing high picks reduced if they are deemed to have infringed these rules. Simple and straightforward, but this could be difficult to police.
2. A secondary postseason tournament could be introduced for non-playoff teams to help determine the draft order, essentially rewarding bad teams who at least compete. Whilst this would create additional revenue for the league, I doubt players will be happy with additional fixtures on top of the already mammoth 82 game season.
Whilst these might address the frustrating (at least for fans) act of tanking, it won’t create true parity. We’ve heard for years now how the Eastern Conference is really the Leastern Conference, how LeBron has a cake walk to the Finals each season and how the Western Conference finals are the “real” Finals.
So in addition to the above, is it time that the NBA also brought equality to schedule as well?
Currently, teams play their four divisional rivals four times, six other teams in their conference four times, the remaining four conference squads three times and franchises from the opposite conference twice.
Complex right? And also a mutation of a concept designed when teams still travelled on commercial planes.
With the average franchise being worth over $1 billion, the modern NBA is a totally different world from when this scheduling system was developed. Private planes, top hotels, world leading medical care and huge advancements in sports science make travel much easier for players.
Re-working the schedule would mean that season records between the conferences would be more comparable. Would Cleveland have won 57 games if they had a schedule featuring more of the stronger teams in the West?
Would Toronto be one of the final four teams (sorry T. I honestly don’t dislike your team)? Yes, franchises would still play certain teams more times than others, but that could even out over seasons.
I’m not saying the league should go as far as removing conferences. Their existence certainly makes selecting All-Star teams easier! But the league could also follow the WNBA’s lead in removing playoff seedings from being separated by Conference. U
sing this year’s standings (though realising the current scheduling has been used), this would mean Chicago’s 42 wins would have got them a postseason appearance over the 41 win Rockets.
Of course, these suggestions are not all encompassing and, let’s face it, not even necessarily realistic. But the early rounds of these playoffs have been littered with insinuations (from a range of sources) that they’ve lacked a competitive atmosphere.
If this isn’t addressed it could damage the NBA’s global appeal, which is the last thing Adam Silver or anyone wants.