The Suns (48-34) and Timberwolves (40-42) missed the playoffs last season while the Hawks (38-44) made it because, unlike Phoenix and Minnesota, Atlanta plays in the Eastern Conference.
If that bothers you, you have company within the NBA.
at least two Western Conference teams have suggested in meetings with NBA officials that the playoffs should feature the top 16 teams by record, regardless of conference affiliation, per multiple league sources. The idea does not appear to have much traction.
The league can’t simply allow the top 16 records into the playoffs and achieve equity.
That’s because teams play unbalanced schedules, 52 games against their own conference and 30 against the other. With such a setup, it’s possible for one of the 16 “best” team to get stuck in the better conference and finish without one of the 16 best records.
It probably happened last season to the Nuggets, who finished 36-46 – two games worse than Atlanta. Denver won 53.3 percent of its games against the East, just worse than the Hawks’ 53.8 percent. But the Nuggets significantly enough outclassed Atlanta against the West, 38.5 percent to 33.3 percent. More than actual team quality, unbalanced schedules explains why Denver had a worse record than the Hawks.
If the goal is only to reward the best teams with playoff berths, the NBA should eliminate conferences, balance the schedules and send 16 teams to the playoffs.
But unbalanced schedules are good for the league. They keep teams in the same time zone more often, which helps television ratings in the away team’s market. East Coast fans often don’t stay up to watch their favorite team play at 10:30 p.m. out West. Likewise, West Coast fans aren’t necessarily home in time to catch a 4:30 p.m. tip-off out East.
Some of those games are necessary, but too many is bad business.
And if the playoffs are seeded by record regardless of conference, drastically reducing the likelihood of same-time-zone matchups, that could further harm ratings – though fans obviously have a higher tolerance for inconvenient start times in the postseason.
Perhaps, letting the 16 best records – regardless of conference – into the playoffs is the best solution. The current setup, as the Suns and Timberwolves can attest, has its drawbacks. But the alternative is, by no means, a perfect fix.