When Stephen Curry appeared on BBC News in September as part of his summer tour with shoe brand Under Armour, he spoke about how the NBA has the potential to grow in the UK.
It is easy for him to recognise basketball’s international potential. He is the leader of the most popular team in the league, and everywhere he travels in the world, people of all ages are wearing Golden State Warriors blue with his name on it. It was no different for the Celtics in the 1980s, the Bulls in the 1990s, and the Lakers in the 2000s.
But this isn’t the case for the majority of the NBA’s franchises. Occasionally, teams have managed to win one or two titles to break up reigns of dominance throughout history but the league has always proven its most popular when championship rivalries develop over several years: Boston versus Los Angeles, Chicago versus Utah, and more recently Golden State versus Cleveland. The reason it takes years to see them as rivalries, and more entertaining to watch, is because the NBA is split up into conferences, so the two teams that battle to win it all are from different halves of the country: East and West.
Beyond this, each conference is made up of three divisions that comprise five teams. They play their division rivals twice at home and twice away, other teams in the conference three times, and some years four (on an annual rotation). And all teams play one home game and one away game against the each of the teams from the other conference.
This is why the two teams that reach the NBA Finals each year don’t meet often. They have to make it into the playoffs by beating up on the weaker teams in their division, battle for seeding against the other teams in the conference, try to steal a few away wins against teams on the other side of the country, and then go through the rigmarole of three best-of-seven series in their own conference before making it back to the Finals.
It’s a grind. And it doesn’t always mean that the two best teams in the NBA are playing for a championship. But it does mean that more cities around the United States are engaged with the trials and tribulations of an 82-game season, and at least 16 more in the playoffs.
Last season we saw the Golden State Warriors look panicked against the Houston Rockets, as the two teams went to a win-or-go-home game seven. It was epic, and almost everyone knew that whichever team won that series would probably take home the ultimate prize after the Finals.
However, in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto and Cleveland all had horses in the race. It was going to be a tough ask, but the possibility of upsetting LeBron James and his Cavaliers was real – and fortunes could have changed. An injury to the victor of the Rockets-Warriors series, a suspension, or just a clash of styles (many felt the length and depth of the Celtics would have given Golden State problems) could have changed the entire landscape of the NBA.
It’s not all about the Benjamins
Keeping more people interested, by way of having more people across the United States being invested in their local team, as the league reaches fever pitch in the playoffs is certainly a benefit. If there’s less chance of a team winning a title, you can bet there’s less chance that people pay to see their team play. But getting cash coming in through the door isn’t the only thing keeping the NBA from getting rid of the conferences, or even the divisions.
For those teams that don’t stand a chance of winning it all in June, or even making it into the top eight in their conference, it can be a painful existence.
Losing sucks. And if you’re in the Eastern Conference, you are more likely to have had a rough time as an NBA fan in the past 20 years. At the end of last season, the Western Conference had put up 4,426 wins compared to just 3,344 since the millennium.
Take San Antonio. The Spurs enjoyed a lengthy period of winning more than 50 games each season between 1998 and 2017 (with the exception of shortened lockout seasons, when they still posted enough wins to compete long into the playoffs). Last year the team fell short of 50 wins, but The Ringer’s Shea Serrano (seen by many as a mood board for Spurs fandom) opted to instead focus on the positives when he said: “San Antonio Spurs: Texas State Champions 2017 this is my best day”.
San Antonio Spurs: Texas State Champions 2017
this is my best day
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) May 12, 2017
As an NBA fan based in the UK, I got seriously into the game when Michael Jordan was past his best on the Wizards. Having an older brother who loves the game, I knew and watched some of Jordan’s great years but he was not inspiring to watch in Washington. Chicago was holding up the great Ben Gordon as the Bulls’ savior, I wasn’t a fan of the LA Lakers’ elitism, New York was nowhere to be seen (not much has changed) and Boston were fun but terrible. I jumped on the San Antonio bandwagon, which turned out to be a good decision.
After the Spurs had beaten the Detroit Pistons in the Finals, I circled those games in the calendar and paid close attention to the two defensive slugfests the following year, and I admit to getting frustrated and not understanding why they played so few games throughout the year. But those games were so much more intense as a result.
Instead, I learned to understand that Spurs fans hated Houston, and they despised Dallas. Maybe it’s because San Antonio is considered the little market in Texas compared to those to franchises, perhaps it’s because I was guaranteed eight good games each season that would be an intense match-up and bring out the best in the fans and, consequently, the players.
When you become a fan of a team, you learn to hate division rivals. You develop a better understanding of the league, and if the team you support is crap and holds little hope of making the playoffs, having multiple games against the same squad each year gives you a rivalry to look forward to, much like the best teams do when the face their out-of-conference foe in the NBA Finals.
This system has been adjusted and finessed over the years, especially since the league’s expansion to 30 teams when Charlotte re-joined in 2005. That season threw up a few obscurities – such as teams with the second and third best records in the conference finishing as a lower seed compared to a division winner who’d won less games, but the better record still maintained home-court advantage during the playoffs.
The Denver Nuggets finished with 44 wins and won the Northwest. As a reward, the team was given the the third seed in the playoffs, ahead of the 60-win Dallas Mavericks (second in the conference and the Southwest division behind San Antonio Spurs), the 49-win Memphis Grizzlies, the 47-win LA Clippers, the 45-won LA Lakers, and the 44-win Sacramento Kings. Going into the final week of the regular season, the Grizzlies played the Clippers and it would have been more advantageous to throw the game, as the losing side will have likely faced the Nuggets in the first round, instead of the Mavericks.
This system was quickly adjusted and now conference playoff seeding is based purely on record.