Since the 2002–03 season, when the NBA made every playoff round best-of-seven series, the same conference has had the league’s two best records nine times. In three of those years, the same conference had the top three records in the league. The 2002–2003 season had the biggest discrepancy between conferences, with the Western Conference having the four best records in the NBA, while the West’s fifth and sixth seeded teams shared the same record as the Eastern Conference’s first seed.
If the league’s two best records belong to teams in the same conference, the latest they can meet is in the Conference Finals, effectively the league’s semifinals. Upsets can happen of course so these teams aren’t guaranteed to advance that far, but if they do, the league’s two best records should be playing for a title, not just a spot in the Finals.
When the NBA decided to restart last season in a bubble, I had a small hope that they would take the chance to experiment with the playoff structure. The season had already been stopped for a few months and the league had full control over the invited bubble teams’ new schedules. This could’ve been the year that the NBA said “screw it, the postseason will have the league’s top sixteen teams, regardless of conference.”
This didn’t happen, and there’s a number of reasons as to why, such as unbalanced schedules, conference disparity, and a lack of time to implement the new structure. I mean, they wouldn’t just add a new wrinkle to the season simply because of the situation, right?
Just to satisfy my curiosity, here’s what the playoff matchups would’ve looked like if the NBA went with the top sixteen teams last year.
Three of these matchups we saw in the first round this past season, so we can skip talking about those, but look at these series and the possible later round matchups! Lowry vs Lillard! Jokic vs Jimmy! Playoff Ja Morant!
Instead of Denver and Miami advancing deep into the playoffs, one of them is ousted in the first round instead. The second round has a possible MVP battle between Giannis and Harden. The NBA Finals could be between the two best regular-season teams, even if they’re in the same conference.
As much as I’d want this format, I don’t think the NBA would do it yet. However, if the NBA expands, which they’ve recently expressed they’re open to, the door is open for this playoff system. The teams would undergo a lot of realignment to fit into this vision, but here’s a possible way that it could work.
First off, all thirty NBA teams would remain in their current locations for this exercise to both avoid complications and because I said so. While relocation is always on the table for some teams, we’ll keep them where they currently are for now.
Second, we’ll add two new teams. The thirty-first team will go to Seattle. This seems like the most probable action that the NBA would take if they were to expand and to be honest, it’s a no-brainer. The city had a long history with the league, and the NBA’s most recent showing in Seattle was extremely successful.
Let’s be real, they’d also go back to using the Sonics nickname, and it’d be wrong if they used anything else. I also miss those jerseys, and I’d like to see that color scheme back on an NBA court.
The second team is a little more open-ended as there are a number of candidates for NBA expansion, but I’m going to put this franchise in Kansas City. Kansas City may not seem like it, but they have a strong basketball history, as they were once home to the Kings in the 70s and 80s. The city has also been the host for the Big 12 Basketball Tournament since 2010 and has routinely hosted NCAA Tournament games. They also make my realignment plan much easier compared to possible locations like Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, or Louisville for example.
With the two expansion teams out of the way, we can move on to the league’s divisions, and this is how I would divide them up.
Atlantic — Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia
Central — Chicago, Indiana, Milwaukee, Minnesota
North — Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, Washington
Northwest — Denver, Portland, Seattle, Utah
Pacific — Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento
South — Kansas City, Memphis, New Orleans, Oklahoma City
Southeast — Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Orlando
Southwest — Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio
My main goal for the divisions was to keep teams from the same state together, as seen in the Pacific, which is literally the California teams. It also lets me correct some of my issues with the current NBA alignment, such as the Northwest division including teams from Oklahoma and Minnesota. Now, those two teams are in more fitting divisions, and the Northwest moniker fits their current teams.
The most notable change would be a lack of conferences, but since we’re going to be taking the top sixteen teams anyway, that won’t be an issue. Since the All-Star game no longer divides players by conference, if the league decides to keep playing it, it’s not affected by this new alignment either.
As for what winning the division does, it would only guarantee a playoff spot. While this might raise the question of why even have divisions in the first place, the NBA has already done this with their current playoff system.
In today’s NBA, you could theoretically miss the playoffs even if you win your division, and that’s been a possibility for the past five years. Though every division winners’ records in this timespan were already good enough to get into the playoffs already, winning your division should mean something, so I see this as an improvement, even if it appears to be a minor one.
As for seeding, the team with the best record is the first seed, the next best is the second seed, and so on. Keep the current tiebreakers for when two or more teams share the same record and give priority to division winners in that case.
Everything else about the postseason would remain the same. Sixteen teams would qualify and each round would be a best-of-seven series until a champion is crowned.
The NBA might not add any teams any time soon, but they’re open to the idea, and I could see it happening within the decade. It only seems like a matter of time before they add more teams to the league, so when they do, here’s an expansion plan that can improve the playoff system and add meaning to a division title. Conferences would be lost in the process, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.