On Monday, I showed evidence of a long-lasting conference imbalance in the NBA and explained why it's such a problem. My central issue is that because the East has been so shallow for so long, you rarely get the 16 best teams in the league into the playoffs. Beyond that, teams in the West have a much tougher road to the Finals than their counterparts in the East every single year. A fairer system would simply take the 16 best teams and drop them into a playoff bracket.
As several interested parties commented publicly and privately, it's tough to end conferences without also dealing with the underlying schedule imbalance. Teams currently play the 14 other teams in their conference a total of 52 times and the 15 teams from the other conference a total of 30 times. That allows the really good East teams to goose their records and further depresses their Western counterparts. If you seeded the top 16 teams while keeping the current schedule, East teams would still get a persistent advantage due to having many more cupcake opponents every single year.
So let's blow up the schedule, too.
Here's my idea to reorganize the NBA into five regions in order to reduce in-season travel, boost rest and balance the system competitively. And also, I just like making maps.
How the schedule would work:
1. You would play the two teams in your hub five times each. These hubs are denoted by the vertical lines in the map above. Most are extremely tight geographically, with a couple unavoidable exceptions. This is 10 games.
2. You would play the other three teams in your region four times each. This is 12 games, for a running total of 22.
3. You would play teams from two other regions three times each. This is 36 games, for a running total of 58.
4. You would play teams from the remaining two regions twice each. This is 24 games, for a running total of 82.
What two regions would you face thrice a year? That would rotate annually, much as the NFL handles interconference play. In Year 1, the teams of the Pacific would theoretically face the teams of the Lakes and Big West regions three times each and the teams of the Atlantic and Southeast regions twice each. In Year 2, the Pacific teams would face the Big West and Southeast thrice each and the Lakes and Atlantic twice each. In Year 3, they'd face the Southeast and Atlantic thrice each and the Lakes and Big West twice each. In Year 4, they'd face the Atlantic and Lakes thrice each and the Southeast and Big West twice each. And the cycle repeats.
Let's use a real live team as an example. The Blazers!
Under this plan, Portland would face the Kings and Warriors five times each, the Lakers, Clippers and Jazz four times each, the 12 teams in the Big West and Lakes regions three times each and the 12 teams in the Southeast and Atlantic regions twice each. Next year, the schedule against the other Pacific teams would remain, but they'd get three games against each of the 12 Big West and Southeast teams and two games (a home-and-home) against each of the 12 Lakes and Atlantic teams. And so on.
This doesn't achieve perfect balance -- nothing that maintains 82 games and respects the logistic and emotional need to emphasize regional play can do that. You're still at a disadvantage if your region or hub is strong. You're still at a disadvantage if you happen to roll the Thrice Dice against two power regions.
But there is macro balance. Over the course of four years, the peaks will soften and we'll approach something like fairness.
This makes a conference-free playoff system plausible. You can seed teams 1-16 knowing that the schedule is relatively balanced, unlike the current schedule, where East teams have had a much easier path to 50 wins. You're also tightening up some travel, especially for teams currently in the dispersed Northwest. (Portland is 1,400 miles from Minneapolis and 1,500 miles from Oklahoma City.) If the league wanted to award the top five seeds to the five regional champs, that's not a huge issue. I don't think it's necessary, but folks are pretty wed to the idea that winning your division should mean something and this isn't a hill I'll die on.
But the real benefit from reorganizing the league into five regions is in reforming overall scheduling. In theory, each team could complete their 30 out-of-region road games in five six-game road trips. A Western team would only need to fly to the East 2-3 times per regular season. The Eastern teams would only fly to the West Coast once or twice (depending on the regional rotation). For the other 11 road games within a team's region, travel would be reduced by the geographic tightness of the new regions. (Portland, for example, is not close to Oakland. But it's a helluva shorter flight than OKC. The same applies to the Timberwolves, who'd get to spend more time visiting nearby Milwaukee than Salt Lake City.)
This is all theory, of course. Arenas have their own schedules and their own annual problems that require longer road trips. But in theory, by reducing the number of 3- or 4-game road trips, you can condense major travel into normalized two-week trips and potentially reduce the number of annoying back-to-backs.
Right now, teams play roughly 20 back-to-backs per season. That means about half the season is played with either a game the next day or on no rest. That's too many. Studies have indicated that performance improves with one day of rest over no rest, but that rest has diminishing returns -- two days of rest is not a major improvement over one day of rest. (Of course, playing three games in four days or four in five is even worse for performance on average than basic back-to-backs.)
The NBA has 160 days to play 82 games per team. (That includes taking Thanksgiving and one week in February off.) If every team played every other day, you'd only need four back-to-backs per team per season. Of course, this is impossible -- teams are going to need two days off to handle long travel, work around arena availability and to match up with the opponents' scheduling needs.
But by minimizing the number of two-day breaks while on the road or at home, you can reduce wasted days within the season. (If the Lakers are doing their only Southeast road trip of the season, they don't need two days off in between Orlando and Atlanta, unless they are hitchhiking.) Perhaps I'm underrating the difficulty of matching up schedules, but I think you can cut out five back-to-backs per team just through this improved realignment.
There's another way to pick up some schedule breathing room and cut down on back-to-backs: shorten the preseason to five games max and start the regular season in mid-October. FIBA is committing suicide anyway by switching to a FIFA-style qualification system. The NBA Board of Governors has no allegiance to the international body, which holds some of its tournament in September. Moving training camp up to mid-September and tip-off to around October 14 or 15.
You might cringe at expanding the season to cover even more of the calendar, but every day of breathing room at the front end means one more rest day during the season. If my math is right -- don't you roll your eyes -- you could eliminate back-to-backs by starting two weeks earlier and avoiding multi-day breaks when major travel isn't involved.
Preseason is not a huge money maker for NBA teams, even though season ticket holders pay for any home games. Most teams give up a home preseason game or three to play elsewhere (Asia, Europe, smaller American cities, Canada, Mexico, South America, perhaps even on one of Jupiter's moons). There is really no need for a preseason equivalent to 1/10th of the regular season. Teams can make do with four or five games in which to watch third-string point guards run the show, especially if it means killing some of the league's worst scheduling quirks.
One legitimate concern with ending conferences and seeding the best 16 teams in the league is that it could lead to nightmare playoff travel. My counterargument would be that you already have some nightmare playoff travel in the West, which (surprise!) benefits elite East teams. Not only do they have a perennially easier path to the Finals due to poor competition beyond the top four teams or so, but they are likely to travel much less in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Sure, Portland-Miami in the first round would make for hellacious travel. But Portland-Houston wasn't exactly a picnic either.
You can do a few things to mitigate this issue. For example, you could use the abandoned 2-3-2 schedule format for early rounds. Yes, it would give the lower seed a slight improvement in odds over the traditional 2-2-1-1-1, but you'd knock out some of the travel concerns.
There's really no getting around the time zone television issues in a cross-country matchup that would leave East Coasters staying up until 1 a.m. or have Westerners needing to get home for a 4 or 5 p.m. tip. But with weekend games and creative scheduling (8:30 p.m. East tips, anyone?) it wouldn't be a ratings disaster. Especially once you're getting compelling match-ups with the honest-to-Mozgov 16 best teams in the league in there. Plus, the NBA already has these time zone issues during the regular season. Fans find a way to watch their team!
This is not a perfect system. You might end up with a perennially bad region which imbalances the schedule on a year-to-year basis. Some rivalries may lose their luster without repeat playoff pairings. Casual fans might get annoyed by the time zone issues in the playoffs. The players' union might fight moving the season start up. Myopic East franchises might oppose reform that could reduce their chances of
being a sacrificial lamb making the playoffs.
But something like this -- tweaked heavily by folks smarter than me -- would be a real improvement on the imbalanced system currently in place.