Earlier this season, ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the NBA league office was trying to sell a schedule reform package to teams and the players’ union that included play-in games and an in-season tournament. The biggest no-brainer proposal in the package was to reseed the final four teams standing at the end of the playoffs. Instead of either the Eastern or (more likely) Western Conference Finals becoming the de facto NBA Finals due to conference imbalance, you’d further reward regular season excellence and get a better chance at ending up with the two top teams in the Finals.
Really, this is a no-brainer and a baby step toward diminishing the importance of conferences.
Last year this system would have given us Bucks vs. Blazers and Raptors vs. Warriors in the final four, and Bucks vs. Raptors in the Finals (assuming Toronto beat Golden State a round earlier than they did in reality). In 2017-18, we would have seen Rockets vs. Cavaliers and Warriors vs. Celtics in the final four and Rockets vs. Warriors in his rightful place in the NBA Finals. In 2016-17, it would have been Warriors vs. Cavaliers and Spurs vs. Celtics, followed likely by Warriors vs. Spurs, assuming Kawhi Leonard still didn’t get injured in the league semifinals, but maybe even if he had.
Woj and Lowe report that NBA team executives have killed that proposal, and that it may be stripped out of the league’s schedule reform package.
Woj and Lowe cite travel as a major concern. Don’t buy it. Travel is already an enormous burden in the playoffs and regular season for Western Conference teams. Eastern Conference teams have a geographic advantage every single season, including in the playoffs. From the ESPN piece:
For example, a Milwaukee-Indiana conference final would presumably benefit the winner of that series over a team that emerged from a cross-country Los Angeles-Miami series.
Yes, travel would likely be less in a Milwaukee-Indiana series than an L.A.-Miami series. But East teams travel shorter distances than their West counterparts every single postseason. Consider that the furthest possible Eastern Conference playoff distance is Milwaukee vs. Miami. This is a three-hour flight with one time zone difference.
The equivalent Western Conference trip is Los Angeles vs. San Antonio, though this is a three-hour flight with two time zone changes. There are six Western Conference teams who play further away from Los Angeles than San Antonio. So thus including San Antonio, half of the Western Conference is as far or further from Los Angeles than the single worst Eastern Conference travel pair.
And that’s Los Angeles! It’s a far worse situation for Portland, Minnesota and Memphis. The distance between Portland and Memphis is about the same as the distance between New York City and Phoenix.
We’re talking extremes, but the average travel for West teams is universally worse than for the East. Let’s look at what the Finals teams had to face last year.
The Raptors had to play in Orlando (1,000 miles away), Philadelphia (330 miles away), and Milwaukee (430 miles away) to get to the Finals. Only Milwaukee was in a different time zone than Toronto’s Eastern zone.
The Warriors got lucky with two foes on the Western seaboard, and still traveled further on each flight. They faced Los Angeles (340 miles away), Houston (1,600 miles away), and Portland (530 miles).
Golden State got relatively lucky on the travel piece, and the Raptors drew one of the longest possible pairings (the Magic, beaten only by the Heat) … the Warriors still had to travel way further than the Raptors to get to the Finals. (This doesn’t get into when series go longer, requiring more trips. The NBA should use 2-3-2 for all rounds at this point to minimize travel.)
There is a case against reseeding the top four. Frankly, it is a little odd to keep teams sequestered by conference for one piece of the postseason and then tear down the walls toward the end. Just abolish conference seeding altogether and put the best 16 teams in! Or instead of reseeding, one we get to the league semifinals, let the top team pick its opponent from the teams remaining. Then we’ll see how much a concern longer travel really is.
But travel remains an excuse, especially as the league sends teams to London every year and flirts with teams in Mexico City and Seattle (not exactly central cities). Come up with a real argument to deny reform, and get out of the way.