Why should the league change the current NBA Playoff Format?

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Answered by: Michael, An Expert in the NBA Basketball Category
The NBA Playoffs are generally considered to be the most grueling post-season exercise to determine a champion in all of North American professional sports. Sixteen teams compete in four rounds over the course of nearly two months to produce an ultimate victor.

The Association and fans alike want competition at the highest level throughout. Everyone wants to see the titans of the game, like Michael Jordan or LeBron James, pushed to the limits of their excellence by fearless competitors looking to usurp their seat on the throne. The West's Showtime Lakers squaring off against the workman like approach of the East's Boston Celtics throughout the 1980s provided some of the most compelling entertainment in the history of this or any other sport.

Sadly, however, as a result of an archaic system contrived in a bygone era, the existing NBA playoff format no longer maximizes the possibility of such an event.

Sixteen of the thirty teams in the league qualify for the post-season opportunity to vie for the ultimate prize, the Larry O'Brien championship trophy. One would naturally think that the sixteen teams that qualify to compete would be the sixteen teams that have proven themselves the best by the virtue of their win-loss record over the course of the 82 game season. One would think that, and one would be wrong.

Dating back to 1949, the playoffs have been structured such that the opening rounds saw teams from the Western Conference pitted solely against teams from their own conference and likewise for the East. After three rounds of inter-conference competition, a Conference Champion is crowned and much like the old rivalry between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., East meets West in a clash for the league title.

Unlike baseball, where the American and National leagues operate under different sets of rules, the teams in the East and West in the NBA play the exact same game. Why then must the showdown for the title always be based, at least loosely (see Memphis in the Western Conference), on geography? The answer is simpler than you might think and it boils down to one word... travel.

Through much of the early days of the league, even into the 1980s, teams relied on ground travel for some, if not all of their ventures around the country to face their foes. Ground travel is exhausting. Ground travel takes time. For the simple sake of travel, the NBA playoff format was constructed such that the Celtics of Boston would engage in a seven game series with the Knicks of New York in round one rather than a back and forth ground travel nightmare of taking a bus or train from Boston to Los Angeles up to four times over the course of a series. It made sense to have these intense match-ups bound together by geography. To do otherwise would be a logistical disaster.

We've come a long way since then in terms of travel and it is now time to take advantage of the luxuries technology affords us and consider changing the format. Every team now has a charter plane and can get from their locker room to their oppositions arena in a matter of a few hours as opposed to a few days. Cross country travel is no longer a concern. So why change something that has been part of the growth of a business that now sees multi-billion (yes, that's a B) dollar annual profits? Simple, for each of the last five consecutive years, the best sixteen teams didn't make the playoffs.

Because the format still pits East vs. West, the top eight teams from each conference qualify. This results in teams from one conference (typically the West over recent years), missing the playoffs even though their record was better than one, two, sometimes as many as three teams that qualified from the other side. It's a disservice to everyone involved. The players did their job in securing a better position than their opposition. The fans, also known as the customers, are left to watch substandard teams do battle while perhaps the team they support is out getting in some early rounds of golf rather than being still in the fight.

The league has a new commissioner in Adam Silver and as part of creating his own legacy, it would behoove him to consider this proposition. Drop the conference delineation and make the playoffs a match-up of the sixteen best teams, regardless of geography. Everyone from players and customers alike will thank you for it.

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