The NBA took another step towards fossilizing its division system earlier this week. The Board of Governors unanimously decided to move away from geography and towards merit by removing the automatic top-4 seed division winners were previously given. Within each conference, teams will be seeded 1-8 by record. They tweaked the home court advantage tiebreaker procedures as well by making head-to-head results the first tie breaker and moving division winners down to second.
The old structure came under fire last season after the Los Angeles Clippers (the 3 seed) and San Antonio Spurs (the 6 seed) met in the first round despite the Spurs having a better record than the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers won their division, which earned them the fourth seed even though their record was only sixth best in the conference, and four games worse than San Antonio's.
The last time the playoff seeding system was changed, the Spurs were also involved. In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks were forced to square off against the Spurs in the second round instead of possibly the conference finals. The Mavs had a better record than both division winners that year, which prompted the league to change from guaranteeing the division winner a top-3 seed, to a top-4 seed. That change fixed 2006's issue, but last year exposed the remaining problems with the format.
If the new rules had been in place last season, two playoff matchups would have changed. Although the Grizzlies and Spurs finished with the same record, the Spurs would have been the visitors in the 4-5 matchup, due to Memphis' better record against divisional opponents. Instead of hosting San Antonio, the Clippers would have faced the injury-riddled Portland Trailblazers. Then the winner of SA vs. MEM would have played Golden State, with the winner of LAC vs POR taking on the Houston Rockets.
While this is a positive move, it's still not enough to fix the disparity in talent between the two conferences. Until sub .500 teams stop making the playoffs in the East and get into the lottery where they belong, there will continue to be strong teams in the West barely missing the playoffs and getting the high draft picks that they don't deserve. The question is: now that the NBA is no longer propping up division winners, how long will it be before the playoffs become a 1-16 seeded tourney, with only the best teams invited?