While 'unlikely,' NBA to discuss possible changes to playoff format
After another season of great imbalance between teams in the West and East, NBA officials are pledging to consider changes to the playoff format -- ranging from small to radical -- that could be implemented in time for next season's playoffs.
But the most likely scenario, according to various league sources, is no change to the current format.
NBA commissioner David Stern echoed that view Friday night when speaking to reporters in Philadelphia before the 76ers played Detroit, saying: "Although I think it's unlikely anything will happen, I think we're going to explore it fully."
The current system sends the top eight teams in each conference to the postseason, which excluded Golden State in spite of the Warriors' 48-win season and has forced two 55-win title contenders -- San Antonio and Phoenix -- to meet in the first round out West.
Although I think it's unlikely anything will happen, I think we're going to explore it fully.
The exploration will commence with the league office compiling a list of alternative formats and sending them to the NBA's competition committee, which will review the proposals at its next meeting May 27 during the annual pre-draft camp in Orlando.
Suggestions are expected to include re-seeding after each round of the playoffs as seen in other major professional team sports or even sending the teams with the best 16 records to the playoffs irrespective of conference.
If any proposal gets a strong endorsement from the competition committee, it will be forwarded to the league's Board of Governors for a vote at its next meeting in October. The league could also conduct a Board of Governors vote via e-mail before October if there is a consensus push to change the system starting next season.
As Stern indicated, however, any significant alteration would be a surprise.
Stern said during last season's playoffs that re-seeding is "very difficult when you have the television obligations that we have" because the league's TV partners (ESPN and TNT) would then be required "to wait for every series that can affect the re-seeding to be over." The commissioner has also said that he's comfortable with the idea of a lower seed inheriting the playoff path of a higher seed if it can win a seven-game series.
Opposition to sending the teams with the 16 best records to the playoffs is bound to be even more widespread. It's believed that the East's 15 teams, already chafing from years of ridicule thanks to the West's superior depth, would unite to fight such a switch. The current format enabled several sub-.500 teams this season -- such as Indiana, New Jersey and Chicago -- to stay in playoff contention well into April, giving them something to sell to their fan bases in spite of sub-par records.
Making overall record its primary playoff consideration would also likely force the league to change the format of its entire regular-season schedule. West teams would have a valid complaint if the 16-team playoff field was determined strictly by record and East teams retained the advantage of playing 52 games against other East teams and only 30 against West teams.
"My view is that we're going to look at all the stats and all the various permutations and combinations," Stern said Friday night. "We told the owners [at the Board of Governors meeting on April 18] that we're going to present all the options to the competition committee and see whether they want us to pass something along to the board in October.
"And if there is something [to] vote on," Stern continued, "we'd be prepared to make changes [to take effect] next season."
Calls for change have grown steadily louder in recent years, with the gap in depth between the conferences showing no signs of narrowing.
The gap widened to such a degree this season that only three teams in the East -- Boston, Detroit and Orlando -- had a higher win total than ninth-seeded Golden State in the West. The Warriors missed the playoffs despite going 48-34, as each of the West's top eight teams won at least 50 games, exceeding the previous league record of seven 50-win teams from one conference in 2000-01.
The East's four lowest seeds, meanwhile, won no more than 43 games, with Atlanta needing only a 37-45 record to halt the league's longest playoff drought at eight seasons.
As recently as late March, Stern sounded reluctant to consider tweaks, saying on a conference call with reporters: "No one asks [Major League Baseball commissioner] Bud Selig to change the playoff alignment because the National League is stronger than the American League in a given year. And they don't ask the NFL to change because a team in either conference makes the playoffs with an 8-8 or 9-7 record in a given year. So it's not something you respond to in a 60-year-old league on a five-year cycle."
But the West's status as a far stronger top-to-bottom conference has been a reality for much of the past two decades, masked by the fact that Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won six championships in an eight-season span and the titles won by Detroit and Miami in 2004 and 2006.
Yet East supporters would inevitably counter that it did field the two teams with the top two regular-season records in Boston (66-16) and Detroit (59-23) and might house the closest thing to a consensus championship favorite in the Celtics.
As Stern said last May after No. 8 Golden State upset the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in the first round: "There's no change that we can make that makes everybody happy."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.