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Can the NBA Fix its Eastern Conference Problem?

Competitive balance is a problem in the NBA right now. But it takes a back seat to profitability.
Photo by John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed with a 38-44 record. The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, missed the playoffs in the tougher Western Conference with a 48-34 record. This was no anomaly. The Western Conference is the deeper conference and that's been the case for some time now. The question now being floated is what can be done to fix this imbalance?

Realignment is one of the options. Even commissioner Adam Silver last year agreed that conferences and divisions may not be fulfilling their purpose anymore. "Historically, based on geography in terms of ways to schedule and convenience of travel, the goal was to enhance rivalries and I'm not sure if that's still what's happening," he had said before taking office in February.


Last week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban shared his realignment proposal. It involves as many as eight teams switching their conference. He favors, quite obviously, that the Mavericks move to the weaker Eastern Conference. Cuban hasn't spoken to Silver or anyone else in the NBA about this, but in his own words, he wants to turn this idea into "headline porn", sit back and watch the reactions.

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The conference imbalance needs to be addressed, and playoff seedings should be a fair reflection of how teams stacked up during the season. But it's hard to imagine that something as significant as a realignment can happen just because one owner, albeit powerful, floats the idea. There should perhaps be a method to the madness, rather than scooping up teams from Texas and New Orleans and plopping them in the East. For example, when the NHL realigned last year, it was along time zones so teams like Nashville weren't flying out to California or Western Canada as much.

And strength of the teams could change faster than we imagine. What if the next Anthony Davis is drafted by an Eastern Conference team, or the 76ers rebuilding experiment actually works and turns them into a powerhouse? There's no guarantee that there wouldn't be an imbalance again in five years if the teams suggested by Cuban indeed swap conferences.

One possible alternative would be to give automatic playoff spots to the division winners and then allow teams with the best records to fill the other places, regardless of their conference. That would make sure that in a situation like last year's, Phoenix makes the playoffs over Atlanta.

Another option would be to get rid of the divisions altogether. Division standings barely matter to teams or fans. Yet they interfere with seedings and the level of competition in the playoffs. For example, say Boston was to win the Atlantic Division with a 41-41 record. They could still be seeded fourth, ahead of other teams with better (winning) records. Yet another layer of absurdity.

SB Nation's Tom Ziller has argued for banning the conferences altogether in favor of a 5-region NBA, and then giving the playoff spots to the 16 best teams. But with any realignment plan, the question has to be asked: what's the financial bottom line? Is there a profit-driven case for eliminating conferences? For more competitive basketball? Because that's all the owners-the ones who will be making this decision-are going to be thinking about.