Shouldn't the playoffs be as competitive as possible? The NBA is operating as though this isn’t the plan.
The Dallas Mavericks are currently out of the playoffs with a 43-30 record. The Atlanta Hawks are on track to make the playoffs with a 31-40 record. The offensively thrilling Mavs are second in attendance. The mediocre Hawks are 28th. This can’t really be what the league intended, can it?
To be fair, it’s not a given that the best teams make the postseason in every sport. Good teams miss the NFL playoffs because of quirky division rules. The difference is that the NFL isn’t dragging fans through an 82-game season as a prelude. Football also doesn't grind through highly predictable seven-game series featuring tomato-can challengers. The NFL playoffs might include some lesser squads, but "single elimination" is the sling by which David slays Goliath. Their playoffs are brief and exciting. Certain Eastern Conference NBA matchups are protracted, dreary beatings of horse skeletons.
According to Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System, a measure that incorporates schedule strength, 10 of the top 13 teams in the NBA hail from the Western Conference. If we were filling out brackets for Kirk Goldsberry’s NBA Sweet 16, only six of those teams would be from the East.
The absurdity of it all is that more than half of the NBA makes the playoffs. It should be impossible for good teams to miss the cut. And yet, with its conference system, the NBA accomplishes just that.
But this is a particularly bad season in the Eastern Conference, you might say. True, but at least one East team has made the playoffs at or below .500 in seven of the past eight postseasons; no West team can claim that since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. The NBA can say it all eventually balances out, that these things are cyclical, but it’s quite possible that Eastern Conference misery will continue indefinitely if unchecked.
As Curtis Harris astutely pointed out, the NBA lottery system perpetually weakens the East. Good West teams miss the playoff cut, wind up in the lottery and receive high draft picks. Bad East teams make the diluted playoffs and receive low-quality selections. So long as the conference system and lottery system exist as they do, there’s no guarantee that the East rises.
There are a variety of ways to address this imbalance. Getting rid of conferences, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller has suggested, is the most direct fix.
Scrapping a geography-based playoff system would make travel difficult between certain East and West teams over a back-and-forth series. The counter to this argument is that there are already "West" teams that actually reside in the Eastern part of the nation. Somehow, the league makes do when Memphis plays the Los Angeles Clippers or when New Orleans plays the Los Angeles Lakers in a series.
There's another geography-based reason for why the NBA might prefer the current setup, though it's not one most would acknowledge: All Northeast teams are in the East, and a lot of people live in the Northeast.
A tournament comprised of the best 16 NBA teams could lack any squads from the Boston-to-Washington megalopolis. The current setup makes it easier for a cruddy Knicks team to slink into the playoffs and generate big-market buzz for a couple of weeks. National interest in the Knicks train wreck is a given, unlike national interest in, say, the somewhat competent Minnesota Timberwolves.
Not only is your average East market bigger than your average West market, but a West-heavy bracket could complicate TV scheduling. It's difficult to stagger playoff games on the same day if everyone is playing in the same time zone.
It would seem, though, that these rationales for inaction are penny wise and pound foolish, and the league would be smart to fight inertia here. "Long series featuring bad teams with inevitable results" is pretty much the opposite of how a sport should sell itself. Sacrificing entertaining West teams for the sake of bad, doomed East teams likely isn't a good strategy for creating playoff memories and building the league.
There are multiple ways to address this issue, whether it be abolishing conferences, taking the top 16 teams regardless of conference, or changing the draft in a way that doesn't perpetuate Eastern awfulness. If you really want to venture outside the box, one possible solution is for teams to trade conference status as an asset. (Would the Wolves trade Ricky Rubio to be in the East, for example?)
Regardless of tactics, the NBA should at least address this in some capacity. The East/West divide takes a regular season that's already assailed as "meaningless" and adds some absurdity on top of it. Though the reasons for the status quo are understandable, the status quo makes for bad entertainment. It's best to try and fix that.