The movement initially took hold in November, when even passing NBA fans noticed the massive disparity in win/loss records between the Western and Eastern Conference. It received a kick in the tail late last month, when Grantland’s Zach Lowe penned a typically thoughtful column calling for the abolishment of divisions. And now NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, set to take over for the retiring David Stern in February, is on record saying he’ll at least consider doing away with the damned things.
With November turning into December and the trend barely abating as the West continues to pile up wins, while the East slags about, it probably won’t take very long for some cranks to wonder if the entire idea of conferences within the NBA are an anachronistic venture. Why should a successful and smart team like the Dallas Mavericks have to play the far away (and quite good) Portland Trail Blazers four times, when the similarly spaced Miami Heat gets to buffer its win totals against the awful Milwaukee Bucks?
The NBA is likely so embarrassed about the totals so far this season that, as far we can tell, they declined to fine both the Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns for taking pot shots at the East through their Twitter accounts. The league probably didn’t want to draw more attention to those tweets and the current gulf between the two conferences; because you know the NBA didn’t decline the fine because they developed a sense of humor out of nowhere.
The frustration, especially for fans of those on the playoff bracket bubble out west, has been growing for a decade and a half. A series of poor executive moves from various Eastern Conference teams, mixed with some lottery luck and Michael Jordan’s retirement shifted the league’s fortunes in a western direction in the late 1990s. Since that term the East has snuck in some rather crummy basketball teams, working with records inflated by an easy Eastern schedule, into several postseasons.
This season is shaping up to be the worst yet, with the 10-14 Boston Celtics set to “earn” the East’s fourth seed should they eventually win the Atlantic Division. What’s more telling about Boston’s situation is that they’d outright earn the seventh seed in the Eastern playoff bracket regardless of the NBA rules that place a division winner in the top half of the bracket by law. The East only features two teams with records above .500, with the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks having won only half their games, and the 10-12 Charlotte Bobcats (after winning a combined 28 games in the previous two seasons) have the conference’s fourth best record.
That’s pathetic, whether it’s by design (Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, and to some degree Toronto were built to punt the season), injury (Chicago, and possibly New York and Brooklyn if we’re being kind), or incompetence (everyone else). Meanwhile, the team with the 13th-best winning percentage in the West (your injury-hit Memphis Grizzlies) would rank fourth in the East, and five different current Western Conference lottery participants would get into the postseason if they played in the crummier conference.
The solution to the divisional problem is obvious, you get rid of them. Some owners, such as Dallas’ Mark Cuban, say that the format does increase the value of a rivalry and helps sell both tickets and enhance intrigue, but that’s really only true when it involves the Texas triangle with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, or the Atlantic Division excluding Toronto. Nobody cares about the Southeast Division even though it houses the two-time defending champs, and even this longtime NBA writer would have a tough time discerning just who, exactly, fills up the three divisions out west. They just don’t matter, and awarding a division winner with a guaranteed high seed is a joke.
Complete and total conference abolishment? That’s a different story.
It’s a story that has come up dozens of times since Jordan’s retirement, with ardent NBA fans begging for a 1-through-16 playoff format that would credit the teams with the best records regardless of conference placement. The regular season scheduling could stay the same, they argue, with the former conference foes playing each other three or four times a year with only one home and away game against teams working in that “other” conference, just as long as the best teams get in the playoffs.
The issue here is the difference between the NBA and other sports with arbitrary “leagues” within themselves like Major League Baseball and the National Football League. It’s the difference between basketball, the relatively leisurely sport of baseball, and the one-and-done football postseason schedule. Running a best of seven or even best of five series in the first and second rounds of the NBA postseason between teams from all over North America just isn’t feasible.
Most seasons it isn’t, at least.
In years past, first round pairings between Phoenix and the then-New Jersey Nets or Portland and Washington got in the way of taking a complete conference haul seriously. You couldn’t expect teams from across the country to bound about those chartered flights while keeping the same NBA playoff format. There are just too many miles to cover, certainly not worth it even if it meant a 43-win Western Conference team would be on the outside looking in on the playoffs.
This year? It would work.
As of today, the only far-far-away pairing in the 1-through-16 bracket’s first round would have Indiana taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in a frequent flier rematch of their 2000 NBA Finals matchup. Memphis taking on Portland is a bit of a mess, but those are two Western squads – it could happen under the current format. Because there are so many Western teams amongst the top 16, first round matchups like New Orleans and San Antonio, or Minnesota and Oklahoma City would result. Dallas would play Houston, even. Coincidentally, if the season ended on Thursday, the only two other Eastern teams in the top 16 (Miami and Atlanta) would play each other.
So, yes, abolishing conferences because of the West’s tilted success would be the right thing to do this season. There are just too many great Western teams to argue away keeping any Eastern Conference team ranked below the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs.
The problem here is what happens the season after the abolishment. The East is bound to improve, too many smart general managers are doing too many smart things with the lesser teams out East, and the loaded 2014 draft is going to help quite a bit. And from there, should the NBA go with a 1-through-16 format, you’d be back with the same problem we faced in years past when considering the abolishment of conferences: Orlando playing Portland in the first round, Boston working against the Thunder, and too many miles to cross. Football can get away with it with one game per playoff round, and baseball can get away with it because those guys sit around all game. Basketball is different.
The divisions have to go. They’re pointless and they don’t move the needle in the slightest when it comes to establishing rivalries. Continue to schedule Miami and Orlando four times a year, and Miami and Milwaukee only three times, and move on. And take down those stupid division title banners, NBA teams. Those are just creepy.
Conferences? MLB and the NFL are allowed to use arbitrary “National” and “American” leagues because of the makeup of their sport. Hockey and basketball are different, and they need the geographical consolidation even with chartered flights and all manner of luxury perks. Conferences have to stick.
Things will improve out East. And while that may be cold comfort to the 2001 Houston Rockets, the 2004 Utah Jazz, or the potential 47-win team (currently, and coincidentally, either Golden State or Dallas) that could miss out on the playoffs this season, it’s a system that has to sustain. It’s not perfect, but we wouldn’t want it that way – not in a league whose fortunes are often tilted irrevocably by lottery chance, a tweaked knee, or one bad trade by a once-beloved general manager that can affect the next ten years for a franchise. The ripple effects from butterfly wings loom large in this league, and that’s why it’s so damn interesting.
We can understand why the punters want change, though. The East is an embarrassment, and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
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The NBA released the first returns in fan voting for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game on Thursday, with LeBron James of the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder leading the pack as the top vote-getters to represent their respective conferences in New Orleans.
James, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player and two-time NBA Finals MVP, leads all vote-getters with 609,336 votes. Durant, the three-time NBA scoring champion (and if you go by overall points scored rather than points per game, he's been the game's top scorer four years straight) and its current leading scorer, is second with 607,407 votes.
James is joined in the race to start for the East by this season's fastest-rising star, and a player whose team beat James' Heat earlier this week: Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, who has received 489,335 votes. The New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony (424,211 votes) rounds out the top three in the Eastern frontcourt — remember, as was the case last year, All-Star squads will start three "frontcourt" players, not two "forwards" and one "center" — while Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (396,279) and Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (365,712) lead Eastern vote-getters in the backcourt.
Out West, the voters' starting five looks exactly the same as last year's. Durant is flanked up front by Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (295,120 votes) and Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (292,925), while fellow Clipper and 2013 All-Star Game MVP Chris Paul (393,313) appears set to run point.
And who's poised to be off the ball alongside CP3, you ask? That'd be Kobe Bryant, who has more votes than any guard in the league (501,215) despite playing all of two games for the Los Angeles Lakers since coming back from his ruptured left Achilles tendon. Should voting patterns hold, this would mark Bryant's 16th All-Star selection, moving him past ex-teammate Shaquille O'Neal for the second-most appearances all time, trailing only fellow Laker legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar (19). The lesson, as always: In popularity contests, it's good to be popular.
After opening All-Star voting to Twitter, Facebook and a pair of Chinese microblogging services last year, the NBA has expanded balloting to Instagram this season, allowing fans to vote up to 10 different players per day by posting original photos of the players, using #NBABallot and the players' first and last names in the photo captions.
Fans can also vote at the All-Star balloting website, via the NBA Game Time mobile application and by texting a player's last name to 6-9-6-2-2 ("MYNBA"). Voting will close on Monday, Jan. 20, with the starters being announced live during the TNT doubleheader's pre-game show on Thursday, Jan. 23. You can get all the details on the myriad ways to cast your vote at the NBA's official ballot site.
Here are the full results for the first round of voting, followed by a few quick thoughts:
1. LeBron James, Miami Heat: 609,336
2. Paul George, Indiana Pacers: 489,335
3. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks: 424,211
4. Roy Hibbert, Pacers: 208,369
5. Chris Bosh, Heat: 156,364
6. Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn Nets: 102,825
7. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls: 75,229
8. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics: 55,912
9. Luol Deng, Bulls: 54,340
10. Tyson Chandler, Knicks: 51,738
11. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons: 51,351
12. Carlos Boozer, Bulls: 48,745
13. Paul Pierce, Nets: 45,145
14. Brook Lopez, Nets: 37,153
15. Josh Smith, Pistons: 32,025
1. Dwyane Wade, Heat: 396,279
2. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: 365,712
3. Derrick Rose, Bulls: 272,410
4. John Wall, Wizards: 124,851
5. Ray Allen, Heat 99,464
6. Rajon Rondo, Celtics: 80,889
7. Deron Williams, Nets: 44,282
8. George Hill, Pacers: 42,536
9. Evan Turner, Philadelphia 76ers: 33,605
10. Mario Chalmers, Heat: 32,996
1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: 607,407
2. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets: 295,120
3. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: 292,925
4. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves: 275,506
5. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: 217,271
6. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: 149,579
7. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers: 133,199
8. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers: 132,818
9. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors: 109,745
10. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: 89,093
11. Chandler Parsons, Rockets: 77,179
12. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: 60,923
13. David Lee, Warriors: 60,015
14. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs: 55,023
15. Omer Asik, Rockets: 53,827
1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers: 501,215
2. Chris Paul, Clippers: 393,313
3. Stephen Curry, Warriors: 327,449
4. Jeremy Lin, Rockets: 240,404
5. James Harden, Rockets: 198,667
6. Russell Westbrook, Thunder: 149,065
7. Tony Parker, Spurs: 112,423
8. Ricky Rubio, Wolves: 63,096
9. Steve Nash, Lakers: 60,782
10. Damian Lillard, Blazers: 55,847
Now, then, a few thoughts:
• Don't waste your energy getting mad. There is absolutely no point in getting angry about stuff like this. People vote for the players whose names they know and the players they like, irrespective of whether or not those players actually deserve to be recognized as the best players at their positions. You can rend your garments and gnash your teeth, and it won't make a lick of difference, because way more people know who Steve Nash is than know who Damian Lillard is; more to the point, way more people know who Steve Nash is than know that Steve Nash has played 135 minutes of NBA basketball this season. If you want to make some kind of difference, fire up the ol' Weibo account and get to hashtagging, but do so with a smile. It's not worth taking the other option seriously.
• Three guys who deserve better than a no-show. And while you're using your full 10 votes per day per device per medium, perhaps consider tossing an #NBABallot toward:
-- Arron Afflalo, who's one of seven players in the NBA averaging 21 points, four rebounds and four assists per game this season, 11th in the league in scoring on 47/43/87 shooting splits, plays strong perimeter defense every night is one of very few things separating the Orlando Magic from being a college team, and still can't even crack the top 10 among East guards (a pretty awful crop this year).
-- Ty Lawson, who ranks fifth in the league in assists per game and assist percentage (the share of his Denver Nuggets teammates' possessions on which he directly drops dimes), is one of three players in the league averaging 19 points and eight assists per game, leads the league in drives per game and team points scored on drives per game, and is the super-fast prime reason that the Nuggets have bounced back from their rough early start to resemble a dangerous (and fun) team. The Western backcourt's way more competitive than the East's, but Lawson not being in the top 10 vote-getters is a bummer.
-- Al Horford, who just keeps doing what he's doing for the Atlanta Hawks, and what he's doing is very good: 17 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 32.7 minutes per game, shooting 53.7 percent from the field, anchoring on both ends for the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference. (Sure, the East stinks, but that's not Al Horford's fault.)
• Three bumps I'd give. Among guys already in the conversation, here's who I'd love to rocket up the list:
1. Andre Drummond past every East frontcourt player but the top four. He's leading the league in field-goal percentage and he's tied with Howard for the league lead in rebounding percentage. He's in the top 20 in both blocks and steals per game, and he dunks everything in sight and he's incredibly fun to watch, even in the Detroit Pistons' offense. Showcase this monster, please.
2. Brook Lopez past every East frontcourt player but the top four and Drummond. He's averaging 21 points per game on 57.5 percent shooting and has become damn near automatic on the block. He's been virtually the only silver lining in the Brooklyn Nets' Early Season from 13-Letter Hell, and he, not Garnett, has been the in-the-middle defensive linchpin without whom Brooklyn's schemes fall into deep pits of despair. He deserves to be ahead of the likes of better-billed teammates KG and Pierce, injured Knicks pivot Chandler and everyone else in front of him. (A case could be made for Deng, but if I was a Bulls fan, I think I'd rather see him get the full long weekend off, given how much their offense has suffered without him to serve as an escape-valve creator without Derrick Rose.)
3. Damian Lillard past every West guard but the top three. His shooting percentage, especially at the rim, has dipped a bit from Year 1 to Year 2, but his 3-point stroke is sharper than ever, he's competing harder on defense, he's got complete control of Terry Stotts' flow offense and he's followed up his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign by pushing the Trail Blazers past nearly every challenge they've faced and doubt cast upon them en route to a West-leading 18-4 record and signature wins over some very tough opposition. The same is true of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge — you could argue for him to jump from eighth to fifth, or maybe even higher, among Western frontcourt players (especially after the injury to Anthony Davis), but Lillard seems to me to have a larger gap between impact/deservedness and present ranking.
You already know - Research begats more fun ways to analyze our Hawks - and it's all truth! Let's get it...
The early NBA All-Star voting returns are in and there is no Atlanta Hawks player in sight
We are officially a quarter of the way through the NBA season and its time to take a look back at the Atlanta Hawks and highlight a few events that have occurred over the first 22 games.
The Hawks seem to have three really good guards to pick from for the first time in forever, but maybe we should start to think of who we could use to trade for more assets to this team.
They haven't gotten past the second round of the playoffs yet, like all of the franchise's previous entries, but there are plenty of ways to count this current run as a success.
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