If you were one of the few people that watched the NBA Finals, you were a witness to an over-matched Cavaliers team that failed in a desperate struggle to avoid being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
This scenario is nothing new to NBA fans. Western Conference teams will have now won seven of the last nine NBA Championships (all since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.) What’s more, the Cavs are only the third or fouth best team the Spurs have faced this postseason.
Watching the Eastern Conference playoffs this year was like watching the JV teams when compared to the West.
The imbalance between the conferences has long been discussed, but few imagined it would continue for so long. Now that the only immediate-impact players in the upcoming draft, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, appear headed to the Western Conference, there is no end to Eastern Conference inferiority in sight.
Even ESPN’s list of the top ten free agents this off-season only includes one player from a Western Conference team, Rashard Lewis, and it’s not even a good Western Conference team, the Sonics. This means that some of the Eastern Conference’s best players, including Chauncey Billups and Vince Carter, could end up in the West.
The gap between the conferences is not just affected by players. Most of the best coaches in the league also reside in the West. Gregg Popovich, Mike D’Antoni, Avery Johnson, Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan – the list of great Western coaches goes on.
Watching the Cavaliers’ Mike Brown try to coach against his former mentor in the Finals has been almost comical. After a loss in game two, Brown downplayed the importance of motivating his players to play better. “I don’t have anything magical (to say), I’m not that smart,” said Brown, inadvertently summarizing the coaching imbalance.
Unless the NBA league office would rather cross its collective fingers in hopes that a marquee player will be traded from the West to the East, it’s time to restructure the NBA playoffs and start winning back some fans.
With TV ratings for the 2007 Finals in the toilet, NBA Commissioner David Stern will be hard-pressed not to at least discuss a restructuring of the playoffs. Many members of the sports media are already discussing it.
Some members of the press have suggested the abolishment of the conferences altogether. However, such a drastic measure would never been approved by the league.
Although it is also unlikely, the change that makes the most sense involves maintaining the conference system and the playoff seeding as is, but would pit Eastern Conference teams against Western Conference teams in the first round. For example, the top-seeded team in the East would face the lowest-seeded team from the West and so on, making the first round made up entirely of cross-conference match-ups.
Such a change would certainly rejuvenate the interest of casual fans and would provide some interesting first-round series.
If the system had been in place this year, some of the intriguing first-round match-ups would have included a shootout between Kobe and LeBron, an interior struggle between Shaq and Yao and a rematch of the ’97 and ’98 Finals between the equally young Bulls and Jazz.
More importantly, this restructured playoff format would be sure to result in a watchable championship series.