The 2020-21 season of NBA basketball is riddled with unprecedented challenges. Major sports leagues are dealing with the reality of playing through an international pandemic, and that has brought a host of innovative solutions. We saw the NBA implement the bubble last year to resounding success, and in the process introduce changes that many hope will continue beyond the pandemic (consider the end of season elimination games or no-travel playoffs). In the spirit of addressing league-wide problems, I believe now is the time to handle another issue plaguing the NBA- the power imbalance between East and West.
It’s no secret that for years, the Western conference has reigned supreme in the NBA. Consider that before the draft format introduced in 2018 (where a captain from each conference selects other players), the West held a staggering 12-5 lead over the East in NBA All-Star games since 2000. This statistic is even more shocking considering LeBron James played in the Eastern Conference from 2003-2017. Even with the league’s best player representing the East for years, the overwhelming depth of talent out West was plain to see. It was obvious to the league- I have no doubt that this in part motivated the All-Star draft. However, that’s a band-aid- a small fix that shows a much larger problem in basketball.
For years, Western conference NBA teams have faced the harsh reality that it’s much harder to make the playoffs in their half of the league. In the last full NBA season (2018-19), the 6th seed Orlando Magic (East), would have been a full 6 games behind the 8th seed Spurs (West), if they played in the same conference. Several NBA pundits have suggested restructuring the playoffs to correct this, but that brings new issues with travel plans and scheduling conflicts. For example, if a 1-16 format existed in that same season, Golden State would kick off playing Orlando, and players on both sides would be opposed to a first-round coast to coast matchup. But if reorganizing the conferences is too inconvenient, what is the best option?
Restructure the draft.
Take the same 1-16 concept, and apply it to NBA lottery eligibility. This will allow for the worst-performing teams to have access to top prospective NBA talent. If the conferences have a talent disparity and the records show it, it will provide those mediocre teams with a real chance to improve through the draft. On the other hand, teams with better records will lose their unfair advantage (see the 2018 Denver Nuggets, who had the same lottery odds as Detroit, despite being 7 games better). It’s an easy change to implement and comes without the expense of changing a playoff format that players are already comfortable with. It’s time for the league to face facts regarding this power disparity, and do something about it.