Remember the, I don’t know, decade stretch when the East was so bad and the West was so good that people were shouting at the NBA to put the top 16 teams in the playoffs regardless of conference because the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs and the 45-37 Oklahoma City Thunder did not?
The NBA, as recently as 2020, thought about reseeding the final four teams regardless of conference to produce the best matchups, but coastal teams pushed back because of competitive disadvantages over travel. In the off-chance of a Miami-Los Angeles or Boston-Portland scenario in the conference finals, those teams would rack up a dizzying amount of travel time (and an insane amount of frequent flier miles if they get those from chartered flights).
Well now — at least this season — the scale has shifted toward the East. Currently, the Trail Blazers (21-30) are the 10 seed in the West, but the Knicks (24-27) and Wizards (23-26) are both on the outside looking play-in in the East. The seven through 10 seeds in the West are all .500 or worse. Atlanta, a 10 seed as of Feb. 1, is the only East team in the postseason with a losing record (24-26).
Had the league done away with seeding by conference, it would benefit the East this season after so many years of sub-.500 teams competing for an eight spot and the right to get swept by whatever team had LeBron James. If only we could right this injustice once and for all. This format is an atrocity and is depriving us of a Knicks-Lakers play-in game. Doesn’t the league know the ratings gods must be appeased?!
Aside from supremacy over a dilapidated conference being my favorite counter to any “James is the GOAT” argument, it’s fitting that the West fell into disrepair as soon as he arrived. He came out against messing with the playoff structure in 2018, and why wouldn’t he? He’s benefited from pistol-whipping scrubs his entire career.
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It’s similarly fateful that New York finally gets out of the cellar only to have the level of competition put them right back in the lottery. (They’re only a half-game behind the Hawks for the final play-in spot, so in theory they could turn it around and win the games to make the playoffs, but in theory they could land the next available big name free agent, too. Also, does getting the eight seed even qualify as turning it around for the Knicks? (I’m told, sadly, yes.))
Does it make sense that a team nine games under .500 will get to the postseason ahead of a couple teams who are inarguably better? Unequivocally, no. (I was at Bulls-Blazers on Sunday, and I have to say, Portland plays even worse defense in person.) Does it make sense that the 106-win Dodgers had to play a win-or-go home Wild Card game even though they won 11 and 18 more games than two division winners? Or that the 107-win San Francisco Giants had to play that same Dodgers team in the NLDS? No, and fuck no. Does it make sense that America doesn’t use the metric system? No, but that’s just the way shit is.
Winning your division should matter. Ask the Bengals. Rivalries are formed in the playoffs. New York and Atlanta should hate each other, not New York and LA. A team from the NFC East should be in the playoffs every year. The same goes for the AL Central. A footlong should be 12 inches, not 30.48 centimeters.
Deserve’s got nothing to do with it. Being lucky or unlucky is a part of sports; it creates storylines, alters history, and determines legacies.
The goalposts moving on the Knicks and James Dolan is unlucky — or hysterical depending on how you look at it. The East being a dumpster fire during most of LeBron’s time on the Cavs and Heat was lucky, and definitely altered his career for the better. The legend of Kawhi Leonard would be dramatically different if not for a few lucky bounces against the 76ers and a few unlucky breaks for the Warriors.
I’m all for life being as fair as possible, but sports being unfair is perfect. When the outcome is so often determined by a play, a matchup, a flag, a foul, a catch, a drop, an injury, a bobble, a fumble, a what the fuck just happened moment, luck invariably should be a variable.