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Shirley: LeBron saved the playoffs

| Friday, March 22, 2019

When LeBron James packed up his bags for the bright lights of Los Angeles last summer, he flipped the script on many of the commanding narratives of the modern NBA. It was a revolution in the movement of player empowerment that began with his superteam-constructing actions eight years prior in Miami, and simultaneously a “Game of Thrones”-sian-level alliance of the King’s personal brand with that of one of the world’s most historic and recognizable teams.

However, it’s also important to note the juiciest storyline that seems to have all but disappeared in the wake of LeBron’s move out west — that is, that the NBA should do away with conferences in regards to playoff seeding, and instead create a 1- through 16-seed bracket of the NBA’s best based on record.

The call for a fairer playoff seeding system has grown steadily more vocal throughout the past two decades, and it came to a peak last season. At the All-Star Game in February 2018, commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of a 1-16 playoff format, recognizing that “You would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals.”

Someone should check if Silver’s ever heard of the word “jinx,” because the following playoffs played out exactly how he wouldn’t have preferred. The Western Conference Finals featured an exhilarating seven-game shootout between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, and the actual Finals turned out to be a dud with a Cleveland team that obviously wasn’t at the same level as Golden State.

The heart of the problem is an imbalance of conference power, and it’s anything but a new phenomenon. For the entirety of this writer’s life, the Western Conference has been the premier class of the NBA. Buoyed by dynastic franchises like the Lakers, Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, the Western Conference claims 12 of the past 18 NBA championships. The discrepancy also exists at an individual basis; of the 15 players selected to All-NBA Teams at the conclusion of last season, 10 resided in the West, and that’s not including the incoming King James.

So how is it that the cry for a more balanced playoff seeding — which again, has been decades in the making — went quiet? The answer lies in LeBron’s oh-so-important departure and what it represented. If the Western Conference in aggregate has a perennial leg up on the East, it’s nothing compared to the iron grip that LeBron James held over his counterparts over the last eight years. Though his results in the Finals are a mixed bag, LeBron’s incredible consistency to get there seven-consecutive years and to demolish all would-be challengers in the East will be the defining statistic of his career. It also became destructively monotonous by the end, especially because it ran in tandem with the Warriors’ dominance.

In the aftermath of the king-sized hole LeBron left arose a new Eastern elite. Like a Mad Max wasteland just waiting for a new world order, the Eastern Conference playoffs promise to be a bloodbath between teams that finally feel like the crown is theirs for the taking.

At the top of the heap is the Milwaukee Bucks, led by the King’s heir apparent and likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Toronto Raptors, who spent years as LeBron’s whipping boys, have never had a two-way player as dynamic as Kawhi Leonard. The Philadelphia 76ers’ years-long “Process” officially ended this season when they made win-now moves in bringing in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. And you’d be a fool to believe that the Boston Celtics, whatever dysfunction they may have endured this season, won’t be playing their best ball when the lights are brightest.

If the NBA were to have seeded these playoffs strictly by record, we’d be robbed of the significant rise to power that one of these young teams will make. It turns out we didn’t need a new playoff format, we just needed some new teams at the top. So though LeBron will be chilling in Malibu in June for the first time in a while, his presence still looms large over the NBA system as a whole.

Now if only we could do something about the Warriors.

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

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