NBA recommends dropping division advantage from playoff seeding
LAS VEGAS — The NBA recommended a small and logical step to better align regular-season performance with playoff seeding, but it has chosen to pass on more substantive reform that would address the wide disparity between the quality of its two conferences.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Tuesday that the league's Competition Committee has recommended that the six division winners no longer be awarded an automatic top-four seed in the playoffs. Instead, teams in each conference will be seeded from one to eight based on record alone.
"The recommendation from the Competition Committee is that we should seed one through eight based on conference standings for the playoffs [and] eliminate the preference for a division," Silver said. "That recommendation was discussed at the Board today."
The recommendation wasn't yet put to a vote, as owners want to discuss the issue further with their basketball operations staffs, but Silver said he expects the recommendation to be approved prior to the 2015-16 season.
Silver announced the recommended tweak following the league's annual Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas in response to extended criticism of the current seeding system, which has been derided by many observers as confusing, illogical and unfair.
That criticism came to a head during the 2015 playoffs, when the Clippers (56-26) and Spurs (55-27), two strong title contenders, were forced to face off in a first-round playoff series because the weaker Blazers (51-31) were granted the conference's No. 4 seed by virtue of winning the Northwest Division. L.A. and San Antonio ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in regular-season point differential, respectively, and played an epic seven-game series, with the defending champion Spurs falling in seven games.
Meanwhile, the injury-ravaged Blazers fell in five less-than-compelling games to the Grizzlies (55-27). If the Blazers hadn't had the guaranteed top-four seed due to their division title, they would have slotted in as the No. 6 seed, facing the No. 3 Clippers. The Grizzlies and Spurs would have then faced each other in the four vs. five matchup.
One particularly annoying quirk of the current system is that a division winner who qualifies for an automatic top-four seed doesn't necessarily open its first-round series with home-court advantage. For example, last season No. 4 Portland faced No. 5 Memphis in the first round. The Blazers received the better seed due to winning their division, but the Grizzlies opened the series at home because they had the better regular-season record.
During his annual address at the Finals, Silver strongly suggested that the division tweak was coming. Clippers coach Doc Rivers openly campaigned for the change throughout the first-round series against the Spurs, even calling the old system a "joke."
The new system would preserve the dual-conference format rather than implementing a "1-to-16" format in which the 16 best teams, regardless of geography, would have advanced to the postseason. The "1-to-16" option was floated by Silver last year in light of the West consistently outperforming the East for more than a decade, with numerous weaker East teams making the playoffs at the expense of stronger West teams simply because they finished in the top-eight of their conference. The 2014-15 season saw this phenomenon repeat again: Oklahoma City (45-37) missed the playoffs in the West but would have been the East's No. 6 seed, while Brooklyn (38-44) made the playoffs as the East's No. 8 seed but would have been tied for 11th in the West. Silver has cited travel and health concerns for his reluctance to go to a "1-to-16" format.
SI.com has argued that the NBA should adopt a "1-to-16" approach to maximize the quality of the postseason by ensuring that the best teams in the league have the greatest opportunity to advance. This year, a "1-to-16" format would have kept the Spurs and Clippers around longer, given the Thunder the playoff spot they deserved, and potentially avoided a weak Eastern Conference finals matchup that saw the Cavaliers sweep the Hawks. In all likelihood, the conference imbalance will be back again next year, as the biggest names to move from the West to the East this summer were complementary players like Monta Ellis, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Cory Joseph.