If you follow the NBA to any degree beyond the daily travails of the Spurs, you're probably quite aware by now about the radical competitive imbalance between the Western and Eastern Conferences. Currently, the seventh and eighth seeds in the East are occupied by the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, a pair of 22-30 teams. Meanwhile in the West there are ten teams who currently sport winning records and obviously only eight of them will make the playoffs. This isn't a case of a few teams outperforming or underachieving based on their scoring differentials either. The ninth and ten Western teams (Oklahoma City and New Orleans) both have positive differentials, while Miami and Charlotte are both firmly in the red (in fact more so than the 10th through 12th place teams in the East).
As the massively-talented Tom Ziller pointed out, this phenomenon has been par for the course for a while.
So to recap, the West's best lottery team had a better record than the East's worst playoff team in 10 of the past 12 seasons. On average, the West No. 9 has four more wins than the East No. 8. And remember that none of this takes into account that East teams play more games (52) against the inferior conference than do West teams (30).
And one of the two outliers was the strike-shortened 2012 season, where Eastern eighth-seed Philadelphia had 35 wins while Houston, the ninth-best Western team, had 34, in a 66-game season. It's possible that the Rockets could've eked out a better record than the Sixers if they had 16 more games to play with (though to be fair, the Sixers had a much better scoring differential that year).
Often, the difference between the West's ninth-best squad and the East's eighth-seed is dramatic. For example, last year Phoenix had 48 wins and missed the playoffs while Atlanta won 38 and got in. And remember, the Hawks had an easier schedule to boot! They had 52 of their 82 games against Eastern foes, while the Suns had 52 of their 82 against the West. This imbalance has been going on since 2002, so at this point we can't dismiss it as a cyclical fluke. Too many good Western teams wind up in the draft lottery, where they don't belong, and they wind up drafting top-15 talents that should rightly be going to sad-sack Eastern playoff cannon fodder.
Ziller had a pretty clever proposal to end conferences that you should definitely read if you haven't already. I have a similar solution, but a bit different. I would end conferences and divisions altogether. I would reduce the season to 74 games and re-swivel the schedule like so:
Everybody plays everybody twice each. That's 58 games.
The teams that made the playoffs the previous season play the other 15 teams that made the playoffs the previous season one extra time. That's a running total of 73 games. They would play their closest geographic rival (Brooklyn with New York, Golden State with Sacramento, the Lakers and the Clippers, etc.) one extra time. That works out to 74 games. The most one team would play another would be four times, and that's only if the geographic rivals were both in the playoffs the previous season.
For teams that missed the playoffs the previous season, they'd play the other 13 teams that missed the playoffs once extra, plus their closest geographic rival once extra, for a running total of 72. Then they'd play two more extra games against random non-playoff teams to also bring their total to 74.
This would still produce an unbalanced schedule, but more like the NFL's, where the unbalance is based on the previous season's performance rather than geography. It would still be geographic in nature for the first couple of seasons, but gradually the cream would rise to the top and the schedule formula would create more parity geographically. There would be a bit more travel involved as teams like the Blazers would have to make the occasional extra visit to a Chicago or a Miami, but it would balance out by having fewer overall games to play and more rest days in between.
The most important point is that everyone would have the same schedule in 58 out of 74 games as opposed to 58 out of 82. The more you increase that commonality, the less chance there is for teams that don't belong to make the playoff field. At least this way our schedule variance is based on quality rather geography.
After the 74-game regular season we'd simply take the teams with the 16 best records and seed the playoffs NCAA-bracket style, with 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15 and so on. I'd keep the bracket fixed, so the winner of 1 vs. 16 playing the winner of 8 vs. 9 in the second round, rather than re-seeding every round. That way there'd be a better chance for competitive series and upsets.
In the next column, I'll explain how I'd design the schedule more specifically to make the games as entertaining and competitive as possible. Hint: Travel fatigue would less of an issue in the NBA I envision, and there would be synergy with America's other indoor sport.