The 20th anniversary of the 1998 NBA Finals will arrive in June, and yet the glow from Michael Jordan’s final title run has hardly waned. That series remains the most-watched Finals in league history, with Game 6—which ended with Jordan’s brush-off of Bryon Russell—standing as the most-watched Finals game. Jordan’s greatness, and the fact that Chicago’s run was reaching its conclusion, were unquestionably the driving factors behind that record-setting interest.
But the Jazz, led by Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, deserve credit too. In 1997, Utah won 64 games (second to Chicago), posted a +8.8 point differential (second to Chicago) and pushed the Bulls to six games in the 1997 Finals. In 1998, the Jazz matched championship the Bulls’ league-leading 62 wins. Jordan famously never needed a Game 7 during any of his six successful Finals appearances, but it took a brilliant steal and an iconic clutch shot to avoid one in '98. That series was great because of Jordan, but it has endured for two decades in part because Jordan was tested by the best available competition on the biggest possible stage.
Here’s the factoid from that series that matters most for 2018’s never-ending playoff format discussion: 1998 was the last time the NBA’s top two teams, by record, squared off in the Finals. This has been a stunning drought, given that four of Jordan’s six titles came in Finals that pitted the league’s top two teams by record (1992, 1996, 1997, 1998).
In the 20 years since, the NBA has staged some epic Finals that rival 1998 in terms of drama, like Ray Allen’s tape-dropping three-pointer in 2013 and the LeBron-led 3-1 comeback in 2016. Overall, though, the NBA’s championship series has fallen far short of its potential due to a glaring structural failure: By sticking to its West vs. East format, the NBA has often short-circuited the ideal Finals matchup because the league’s top two teams resided in the same conference.
Before it gets sidetracked with end-of-season play-in tournaments or other convoluted anti-tanking measures, the NBA needs to address this central flaw. To commissioner Adam Silver’s credit, he publicly acknowledged the issue last month at All-Star Weekend as he teased a possible change to a 1-to-16 playoff format. The new playoff model would do away with conference designations—much like the league ditched the “East vs. West” format for the first time in the 2018 All-Star Game—and rank the playoff teams regardless of geography. While noting travel and scheduling concerns, Silver specifically stated a desire to address the possibility of a conference imbalance.
“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” Silver said. “I’m not saying this is the case this year, but you could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the Conference Finals or somewhere else.”
The cop-out reading of that statement is to pretend that the “two best teams” are whatever two teams are left standing at the end. Yes, that thinking does occasionally bear out for a variety of reasons that are beyond the league’s control. Some star-driven teams coast through the regular season, paying little mind to securing home-court advantage. Other top-performing outfits crack under the postseason pressure or are ill-suited to the match-up nature of the playoffs. Still others might succumb to a key injury, a tough whistle, or a series-altering suspension.
Together, these conditions contribute to a sense, shared by many, that the status quo is functioning well enough. "It's cool to mess around with the All-Star Game, we proved you can do that," LeBron James said recently, per NBA.com. "But let's not get too crazy about the playoffs."
Unfortunately, that cop-out approach is riddled with problems. First, it devalues the 82-game schedule by prioritizing geographical conference designation over performance-based metrics like wins or point differential. Second, it regularly puts more-deserving teams at a disadvantage by forcing them into tougher match-ups prior to the Finals. And third, it regularly provides an advantage to less-deserving teams by gifting them with easier match-ups. A look back at the NBA’s recent history can help illuminate exactly how pervasive these problems have been.
While Silver didn’t explicitly state it at All-Star Weekend, the NBA’s top two teams by record, Golden State and Houston, are both in the West this season. Remarkably, if current winning percentages hold, 2018 will be the fourth time in the last five seasons that the West has posted the league’s top-two records. And, if both the Warriors (+8.5) and Rockets (+8.8) beat out the Raptors (+8.7) in point differential, it will mark the fifth straight season the West has possessed the league’s two most dominant regular-season teams.
This need not devolve into coastal warfare between Western Conference elitists and Eastern Conference loyalists. Given Silver’s stated objective, it really doesn’t matter whether the two best teams are in the West or in the East. And if the goal is to deliver a possible No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown, the NBA’s current postseason format is failing badly.
During the 19 post-Jordan seasons (not including 2017-18), the West has had the league’s top two teams by record nine times. Over that same period, the East has had the league’s top two teams by record twice. Combined, that’s 11 of the past 19 seasons that had no chance of pitting the teams with the two best records against each other in the Finals. (Note: All ties by record were broken by point differential.)
Conference Affiliation of NBA’s Top 2 Teams: By Record (1999-2017)
• West has 2; East has 0: 9 times
• West has 1; East has 1: 8 times
• West has 0; East has 2: 2 times
There’s a similar story if one judges the league’s “best” teams by their point differential rather than their record. Over the last 19 seasons, the West has had the league’s top two teams by point differential 11 times. Over that same period, the East has had the league’s top two teams by point differential three times. In other words, 14 of the last 19 postseasons were poisoned by an imbalance before they even started: The league’s best team and second-best team had to vie for just one Finals spot despite outperforming the rest of the league over 82 games. The last time the NBA Finals featured the league’s top two teams by point differential was the 1997 Finals between the Bulls and Jazz.
Conference Affiliation of NBA’s Top 2 Teams: By Point Differential (1999-2017)
• West has 2; East has 0: 11 times
• West has 1; East has 1: 5 times
• West has 0; East has 2: 3 times
For every classic—like 2013 and 2016—that the current set-up has produced, there are numerous counter-examples of “Finals that could have been” if not for the East vs. West format. There’s no way to re-write history, but such cases are worth considering as the league weighs its options going forward.
The post-Jordan era is littered with examples of postseasons that could have been more compelling if not for the East vs. West split.
• In 2000, the Lakers and Blazers, the NBA’s two best teams by record and point differential, went toe-to-toe in a seven-game West finals before L.A. disposed of Indiana in a 6-game Finals afterthought.
• In 2002, the Lakers and Kings, the NBA’s two best teams by record and point differential, went seven in the West finals before L.A. swept New Jersey in a Finals yawner.
• In 2007, the Suns and Spurs were the NBA’s top two teams by point differential and yet had to face off in the West semifinals.
• In 2008, the Celtics and Pistons, who ranked 1-2 in both record and point differential, went six games in the East finals. Boston went on to beat the Lakers in six games in the Finals, but the clincher was an ugly blowout.
• In 2014, the Spurs and Thunder held the NBA’s top two records and played a compelling six-game West finals before San Antonio dispatched Miami in a lopsided five-game Finals.
• In 2015, the Clippers and Spurs ranked 2-3 in point differential yet had to face off in a first-round series. The No. 1 ranked Warriors ultimately avoided both and triumphed in six games over the injury-ravaged Cavaliers in the Finals.
• In 2018, the Warriors and Rockets are on track for 64+ wins apiece—4+ more than the East’s best team—but will be stuck on the same side of the playoff bracket.
Playoff format reform isn’t just about better serving the league’s top two teams. There’s a trickle-down effect at play, too.
If Silver’s stated goal is to pit the top two teams in the Finals, then it follows logically that the two conference finals would ideally allow the top four teams the opportunity to advance to the final four. The NBA’s current format fares poorly by this standard as well.
Let’s examine the conference designations of the top four teams by record point and differential over the last 30 seasons. Think of these teams as the four No. 1 seeds in a 16-team bracket-style tournament.
Conference Affiliation of NBA’s Top 4 Teams: By Record (1988-2017)
• West has 4; East has 0: 3 times
• West has 3; East has 1: 13 times
• West has 2; East has 2: 13 times
• West has 1; East has 3: 1 time
• West has 0; East has 4: 0 times
Conference Affiliation of NBA’s Top 4 Teams: By Point Differential (1988-2017)
• West has 4; East has 0: 4 times
• West has 3; East has 1: 15 times
• West has 2; East has 2: 10 times
• West has 1; East has 3: 1 time
• West has 0; East has 4: 0 times
Again, one takeaway from these numbers is that the West has thoroughly outpaced the East over the last three decades when it comes to producing elite teams.
But the more important conclusion from Silver’s perspective is that the postseason format has been properly balanced—with two of the top four teams coming from each conference—less than half the time. In 17 of the 30 years by record, the postseason bracket has favored one conference or the other based solely on geography. The same is true in 20 of the 30 years by point differential.
Those numbers should set off alarms. Every instance in which one conference has better top-end teams than the other is another opportunity for a lesser team to advance deeper in the playoffs than its record or point differential suggests it should. Plus, in an ideal world each of the NBA’s top four teams would enjoy home-court advantage in the second round every year, an impossibility during an unbalanced season. Worst of all, every unbalanced year also theoretically represents a less-than-maximized shot at generating additional revenue and higher television ratings during more competitive series.
Assuming current winning percentages hold, 2018 will be a balanced year among the top four teams by record, with the West’s Warriors and Rockets and the East’s Raptors and Celtics. However, this will be just the second time in the last six seasons that the top four teams have been balanced by record.
The scope of the current format’s shortcomings shouldn’t be understated given that the fix is so simple, at least on paper. Ranking the playoff teams from 1 to 16 would ensure—every year—that the four top-performing teams would be split evenly into two brackets and that the top two teams would not square off until the Finals.
Why would any league stick with a system that is properly balanced among the top four teams just 13 out of 30 times when an improved system could hit 30 for 30? Why would any league stick with a system that has prevented the ideal No. 1 vs. No. 2 outcome in 12 of the past 19 seasons when an improved system could have made it possible 19 out of 19 times?
Tradition, as Silver has stated publicly, isn’t a good enough answer. Travel concerns shouldn’t be either. The NBA has proven it can rejigger its schedule in major ways, eliminating four-games-in-five-nights and cutting down drastically on back-to-backs. Those powers would be put to better use by reverse-engineering the schedule to first accommodate any Finals and playoff matchups, regardless of geographical constraints, before setting to work on the regular season and preseason.
Only then will the NBA have maximized its shot—every year—to rekindle the heavyweight showdowns that regularly marked the heights of the Jordan era.