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Berry: NBA should eliminate conferences

| Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It’s a pretty well known fact that the new era of super-team basketball has rid the NBA of its competitiveness over the last few years.

The unequal distribution of competitive teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences only aid the growing problem of repeat finals matchups. You don’t even have to be a basketball fanatic to accurately predict that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will once again meet in the finals. Whether the Cavs or Warriors will manage to win the championship is the only variable up for debate. Under the current system, the Cavaliers-Warriors saga for the NBA championship will have more sequels than the “Rocky” series or “The Fast and the Furious.”

There’s a very simple solution to rectify this problem: conference-less basketball.

Conference-less basketball isn’t a new concept. The WNBA first employed this system two years ago after it too suffered from the unequal distribution of teams in conference play. As is true in the NBA, the Western Conference in the WNBA dominated the league, and the Western Conference finals were always more competitive than the actual finals themselves.

Conference-less basketball was implemented to alleviate that issue. The new format takes the top-eight teams and staggers the series based on rounds, with the first two rounds being single elimination and the last two rounds being the best-of-five series. The risk paid dividends for the WNBA, including a 24 percent increase in finals viewership over the last two seasons. The increase in viewership could be a direct result of the conference-less playoffs or the fact that the lack of competitive NBA finals has drawn unsatisfied viewers toward the WNBA, but nevertheless, it’s a change in the positive direction and has promoted good basketball.

Sure, it can be argued that the new format is producing its own repeated rivalry between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks, both of whom have competed in the last two WNBA finals, but single-digit margins of victory and winner-take-all game fives are necessary for the expansion of the league, and the two iterations of the finals have been labeled the most competitive games in the league’s history.

Due to the potential loss of revenue, I wouldn’t expect the NBA to commit to a staggered format, but eliminating conferences is well within the power of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Assuming that each of the 32 teams has schedules roughly similar in strength to one another, translating a conference-less basketball setting from a league with 12 teams to a league with 32 should be easy. The only real change to the current format is that the new system would take the top-16 teams. Taking the top-16 teams increases the competitiveness within the league because teams will no longer be competing with just the 16 teams in their conference for playoff spots, but the entire league. The risk with taking the top-16 teams for the playoffs is that it might be skewed primarily toward the “old” Western Conference teams over the other, but if that’s what it takes to get close, competitive matchups all throughout the playoffs, then so be it.

If conference-less basketball is implemented within the league, consider the intriguing possibilities of matchups between the Cavs-Spurs, Warriors-Celtics or Thunder-Wizards in the second or third round of the playoffs. There’s a higher potential for upsets within the conference-less format, as neither the Cavs nor the Warriors have a “free-ride” to the finals. If implemented, the playoffs will be the ultimate showdown of super-team versus super-team for the coveted NBA championship. Given that quite a few superstar veterans such as James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook and John Wall are without rings, it will be intriguing to see how they would capitalize on a new playoff system.

Conference-less basketball may not end the Cavs-Warriors series, but at least there will be exciting matchups throughout the playoffs and a restoration of some of the competitiveness the NBA has been lacking for years. And if, in a few years, conference-less basketball has restored most of the competitiveness in the NBA, it can be attributed to the fact that the WNBA did it first and got it right.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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