Why it’s time for the NBA to remove the conferences

Why it’s time for the NBA to remove the conferences

The NBA is lopsided. That is inarguable.

The volume of talent playing top-to-bottom in the Western Conference far outstrips that of the Eastern Conference. This creates problems. It means that worthy franchises fail to make the playoffs in one conference, while “also-rans” receive a false honour in playing past April in the other.


Like true democracy, parity is an ideology that will never be fully realised. Instead it represents the standard the NBA should strive to continually improve and adapt towards becoming. It is the very foundation on which the draft system was based. It is the very essence as to why the salary cap was introduced.

While conferences and, to a lesser degree, divisions were important, their presence was a necessity borne of a different, bygone era. A time where there were less teams in the NBA and travel standards included commercial flights and hitchhiking to games. That time is no more, with teams travelling from city to city in extravagant luxury.

There is no value in the divisions. Who were the six divisional champions last season? That’s right, the correct answer is: no one cares. It has no impact on playoff seedings (rightly so) and just favours teams with closer neighbours (the Atlantic) or weaker opponents (the Southeast), giving them lighter schedules and artificially inflating win records.

If the divisions were removed, geographic rivalries would still exist – think Spurs-Rockets (that one’s for you, Huw), because irrespective of the structure of the league, teams will still remain X many miles from an opponent unless they relocate. In which case, the rivalry dies anyway (see Portland-Seattle, sad face emoji…).

We don’t hang division banners” Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers legend

Historic rivalries could still be created, such as the Lakers and Celtics. But it takes more than just meeting in the NBA Finals a few times to create these. Chicago-Utah was not a rivalry, just a couple of competitive series.

Golden State-Cleveland is not a rivalry, just a couple of competitive(ish) series and two blowouts. Even if it were (which it’s not), the rivalry would well and truly be dead by now. In the latter two examples, the only things these teams had, to even spark the idea of a contentious coexistence, was that they met in the Finals. And this alone is not enough.

The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was not developed from a great Finals match-up. It was, and is, very much more than that. By the time the the two met in the Finals for the first time in 1959, Boston was hunting their second title, the Lakers already had five.

The two franchises would meet seven times in the Finals over the ensuing decade (a feat that will never happen again in the modern NBA) and have met in the Finals 12 times in total, with Celtics winning on each occasion and overtaking LA (who relocated from Minneapolis in 1960) as the league’s poster boys. But their battles were not limited to just the playoffs and a couple of regular season games.

Fans got to witness this rivalry grow and intensify across nine regular season games in 1959, reducing to six (still!), as the league expanded, by 1969.

What magnified these on court battles was the clash of geographic cultures. The glitz and glamour of the Hollywood darlings, versus the grit and determination of the blue collar Beantown.

This was already in full blown effect way before Magic and Larry hit the hardwood, and one that continues to this day, but notably only when both teams offer some level of relevance.

We don’t hang conference titles” Rajon Rondo, starting Point Guard of the 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics (now a Laker)

In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of the NBA in recent years has been the abject lack of rivalries. Too many players are friends and the competitive fire is waning, to paraphrase a perception voiced by former players and fans, who blindly cling to the notion that “their era” was the league’s “golden era”.

But if all the rivalries are dead, shouldn’t the NBA explore ways of creating new ones?

Under the current format, teams play the following:

  • 30 games vs the other conference (15 teams twice) = 36.5%
  • 16 games vs division rivals (four opposing teams four times) = 19.5%
  • 36 games vs non-divisional conference rivals (10 teams three or four games each) = 44%
  • Total of 52 in conference games = 63.5% of a teams schedule

Given the lopsidedness of the conferences, this not only devalues playoff berths in the East, but also contributes to their overall perennial mediocrity.

Let’s look at a snapshot of last season standings:

Immediately what jumps out is that, irrespective of the more difficult season the Western Conference teams faced, the Nuggets still had a good enough record to be the sixth seed in the East. But instead they entered the draft lottery. Removing the conferences would have sent Denver, deservedly, to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and banished the in-fighting Wizards to an early summer.

Let’s flip it another way: the Phoenix Suns, laughing stocks of the NBA for seven of the last eight seasons – would they have fared as badly if they hadn’t faced Western Conference playoff teams 34 times last year? That’s more than twice as many times they had to play Eastern Conference teams. 

If Denver made the playoffs and Phoenix’s record hadn’t looked so ugly, more Eastern Conference teams would have a greater shot at landing a marquee rookie in the draft, thus increasing the possibility of redistributing the balance of player talent in the future. Instead, their inflated win-loss records contributes to their consistent mediocrity.

The main event

If we look at the Finals, as heroic as LeBron’s performances were, was that really the match-up fans around the world deserved? A 4-0 sweep, apparently underscoring the huge gap between the Warriors and everyone else.

The truth, the Warriors barely escaped the Conference Finals, and only did so thanks to a Chris Paul injury and a monumental choke from the Rockets in the last quarter of their season. All it did was underscore the gap between the Western powerhouses and their Eastern counterparts.

Wouldn’t a more competitive series be better for the fans and increase the perceived  value of a title? “Congrats Super-Team, you beat the barely conscious Cavs in four games, well done you…”

Don’t get me wrong, there are good teams in the East. Just nowhere near as many as out West. And, in recent history, no powerhouses (though the Toronto Raptors are flirting with that this year and the Milwaukee Bucks are on track to be there in the next couple of seasons *crosses multiple fingers*).

The fix

The regular season should be overhauled to minimise schedule bias by doing away with the conferences and divisions. The 82-game season (let’s stick with that for now, that’s a whole other diatribe) could be played almost equally against 29 opponents, with each team facing the other franchises an average of 2.83 times per season.

This could be implemented in a similar rotation to the current “remaining conference rivals” strategy, whereby, in some years you play an opponent three times and in other years, twice.

The non-issue of travel

Research has already been done into the implications of leveling the schedule and removing conferences. Last season, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the idea of creating a true 1-16 playoff structure. He expressed concerns around the amount of travel that a team could experience in the opening round. It’s one of the key arguments many make. Here’s why increased travel is not an excuse.

Implementing these changes is estimated to result in an increase of 150,000 miles of travel in the regular season (based on 2017-2018) across the entire league. On top of the 1.4 million miles that were clocked last season, that’s an increase of just under 11%.

If you looked at it another way, that’s just 5,000 miles per team, per season. With the average speed of a Boeing 747 being 550mph, that’s just over nine hours of extra flight time per team per season. An average of 13.2 minutes additional air time per road game. Would this really have a detrimental effect on the on court product?

By removing conferences and schedule bias, you could actually reduce the total number of miles traveled by the heaviest mile-logging Western teams (by extending road trips) and increase the number of miles Eastern Conference teams travel to level the playing field, to an extent.

On a plane

In the playoffs, the league estimates removing the conferences would increase team travel from 90,000 miles to 130,000 miles. Admittedly, this is a significant uplift of 44%. There are 15 total match-ups per playoffs, meaning the average of 6,000 miles per series under would jump up to 8,666 miles.

Between 2003 and 2017, the average number of games in a playoff series was never less than 5.25. Five games means a four flights total. That’s 2,166.5 miles per flight (up from 1,500), meaning extra flight time of less than 75 minutes per flight.

The additional flight time above is an over-estimation, and (using last season’s Bucks-Celtics, round-one match-up) there are five days between games 1 and 3, and two days between games 4 and 5 – a total window of 11 days. Is an extra hour and a quarter per flight (reminder, these are pretty comfortable planes) really a big issue?

In fact, one of the benefits of restructuring the playoffs this way is the potential to reduce flight time in later rounds if, as expected, the teams in the latter stages are predominantly based in the West.

Using the 2018 Finals as an example, the flight time between Cleveland and San Francisco is 4 hours 33 minutes and covers 2,170.32 miles. If, as many have suggested, the Finals had been between the Golden State and Houston, flight times would have been reduced to 3 hours 33 minutes and 1,646.89 miles. A saving of almost as much as the average increase per flight would be in the earlier rounds. If you made it all the way through the playoffs, at which point would you most welcome some reduced travel?

So, why hasn’t this happened already?

It makes sense from so many angles, but such a change needs the buy in of a significant majority of the NBA board of governors. The board is made up of team owners and, according to the NBA constitution by-laws, any rule changes needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority. In other words, 20 teams, including at least five Eastern Conference owners, would need to vote to increase their own team’s travel schedule, in return for a diminished chance of a playoff seed and reduced revenue from playoff ticket sales (teams keep 55% of their playoff gate receipts, with 45% going back to the league). And that just won’t fly.