By Max Prinz
Last season, the Dallas Mavericks finished the year with a 49-33 record and qualified for the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Con- ference. The only problem was that that record would have made the Mavs the No. 3 seed in the much weaker Eastern Conference.Things have not improved this year. Entering play Tuesday night, the depleted Indiana Pacers were in the No. 8 seed spot in the Eastern Conference with a sub-.500 record. Meanwhile, in the wild, wild West, the No. 8 slot belongs to the Phoe- nix Suns, a very fun team.The time has come. The NBA needs to do something about the complete lack of balance between its two conferences.
The imbalance of good and bad teams between the East and West has gotten out of hand. The West has three teams, Sacramento, Denver and New Orleans, whose con- ference affiliation keeps them out of the playoff picture despite records that are superior to that of the Pac- ers.The fact that Sacramento and New Orleans could be kept out of the playoffs is terrible. The Kings and Pelicans each have a fantastic young player enjoying a breakout season. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are bonafide All-Stars ready for the bigger stage of playoff basketball.
The league’s conference system is broken and is missing out on a chance for higher quality basketball in the postseason.We haven’t even talked about the Oklahoma City Thunder yet. The Thunder, last year’s No. 2 seed out West, lost their two superstars to injury at the start of the year and are currently the owners of a 5-12 record. Kevin Durant rejoined Russell Westbrook in the starting line-up Tuesday night, but it may have come too late.Assuming the West remains as competitive as last season (a very reasonable assumption) the Thunder would have to go 44-21 over the rest of the season to reach the mark of last year’s eight seed — an incredibly difficult task.
The league will have a serious problem if the Thunder, with two of the NBA’s brightest stars, miss the playoffs because they play in the Western Conference and that scenario is all too likely.
Last Wednesday, Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Mavericks, became the first owner to call on the league to address the unbal- anced conferences. Cuban suggested a conference realignment where eight teams, including his Mavericks, change conferences. In his plan the Mavs, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans would move to the Eastern Conference. The Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks would move to the West.
“It’s not like it’d be the first time we’ve ever realigned,” Cuban said, according to ESPN.com. “It’s happened many times before, so there’s precedent and I just think it shakes things up and makes things interesting.”
Cuban’s suggestion is a good one. The teams he would have move West are all a similar distance from Portland, the team farthest west, and keeps the geography of the two conferences fairly similar.
Realignment, however, is not the change the league needs. The league needs to abandon its confer- ence system and have its 30 teams vie for a spot in the 16-team playoff, regardless of conference.
“It just changes things up and it changes the thought process of a lot of teams,” Cuban said of his plan. “It makes both conferences very competitive, at least for the short term and I think, based on the history of the teams, for the long term as well.”
In the short term, Cuban is definitely correct. While he may be correct about the long term too, there is no way to be sure.
Why stop with realignment if the league may have to do it again in a few years? What if a few teams fall apart and shift the balance of power again? Better to remove the conferences now and create the best pos- sible playoff.
In his latest batch of NBA Power Rankings released Monday, Marc Stein ranked all 30 NBA teams. Stein’s top seven teams all play in the Western Conference. His ninth-best Western team, which in theory would miss the playoffs, sits a full two spots ahead of the eighth-best Eastern team.
Yes, the season is still young. However, every team in the East has more time and chances to figure things out simply because they play in a lesser conference.
The NBA’s conferences are all out of whack and the time has come for the league to do something about it.
Max Prinz is the Sports Editor for The Fordham Ram.