So long as the BCS exists, no other major sports playoff system can possibly look truly terrible; college football's bowl system is so backwards -- and, as it turns out, corrupt -- that quibbling over the way the NBA's playoffs work seems like quibbling. In other words, it could be worse, much worse. Imagine basketball's version of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, featuring the Timberwolves and Nets!
But something is broken in the NBA, and it's the conference system.
Every year, the East admits four to seven good teams to the NBA playoffs, and one to four crummy teams. Every year, the West leaves at least one solid team outside of the NBA playoffs, because all eight teams in are really, really good. And that's not just a loose interpretation of memory: that's what actually happens. The graphic below shows the records of the No. 8 and No. 9 teams in each conference since 2003.
In seven of the past eight seasons, the No. 9 team in the West had a better record than the No. 8 team in the East. That means that the NBA didn't take the top 16 teams to the playoffs -- it took the top 12-15, plus a bad team or four while better squads got early start on their beach reading. In the one year where the first team out for the West wasn't better than the last team in for the East, the teams' records were tied.
It's systemic. The East has had the bigger influx of impact players since 2003; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose are among the East superstars that have entered the league since this great imbalance began. And the issue isn't ending.
The Houston Rockets are this season's victim. The Rockets currently sit at 39-35, four games ahead of .500 but 2.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the West. The East playoff picture would, as of Wednesday, admit three teams with records worse than that of Houston to the postseason: the 76ers (38-36), Knicks (36-38) and Pacers (33-42).
In fact, if the NBA abolished conference seeding in the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns would slide in, too. Here's what the bracket would look like after Tuesday's action.
What do you know? If you include the best 16 teams in the league regardless of conference, the series still look amazing! Magic-Nuggets would be must-see television, and not just because of the phrase "Magic Nuggets." There isn't a bad first-round series there (though Bulls-Sixers could get a bit grindy), and the second-round pairings are as wonderful as anything we'll get under the current system. I mean, the opportunity for Lakers-Heat before the NBA Finals alone is worth it, right?
The NBA has slowly but surely eroded the meaning of divisions; now, all a division title gets you is an automatic playoff berth, a top-4 seed and a tiebreaker advantage. Why not similarly erode the conference structure? Travel isn't an issue these days, and rivalries that aren't geographic in nature as just as powerful as regional battles. It'd make for a fairer system and a better first round. What's not to love?