The debate rages every summer. “When will the NBA make things fairer and go to Top-16 playoff seeding, rather than stick to antiquated conferences?” The biggest hurdle, as most people point out, is that any change to the playoff structure requires 20 of the league’s 30 owners to vote for it.
It’s difficult to get 20 out of 30 ultra-rich people to agree on ANYTHING, much less something that would actively hurt 15 of them. Moving to a league-wide playoff seeding would open the door for more Western Conference teams to make the playoffs, as the league is very heavy on playoff-caliber teams on the left side of the map at the moment. For the Eastern Conference owners, it makes no sense to actively make it more difficult for their team to make the playoffs. Or does it?
The NBA is cyclical by nature. Putting the worst teams in position to draft the best young prospects brings with it the parity inherent to all major American sports and works to ensure that the teams at the top don’t stay there forever. The 20-year run of consistent, overwhelming success enjoyed by the San Antonio Spurs is the exception, not the rule; teams cycle through good times and bad, capitalizing on their championship windows and attempting to rebuild as quickly as possible to get back to the playoffs in the down years. Only recently have we seen teams embrace the rebuild to its logical limits, as Sam Hinkie did with the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this decade, and as we’re seeing right now with Travis Schlenk’s Atlanta Hawks.
Like the Spurs individually, the Western Conference has had an unprecedented chokehold over the East for two decades. Any argument that the league is cyclical and will eventually turn back toward the Eastern Conference has been thwarted year in and year out, but at some point, things have to flip back, at which point the Eastern Conference owners will be the ones clamoring for fairer playoff seeding.
While there may not be enough support for five Eastern Conference owners to get it done, Atlanta should be lining up with the West on the change. When it comes time for the Hawks to be good again in the early part of next decade, there’s no telling where the balance of power may lie, but a look at the young up-and-coming stars gives us some indication as to the East’s eventual return to the throne.
A few months ago, our friends over at CBS drafted two teams of 12 under-25 players. Of the 24 players selected, 14 of them play in the Eastern Conference, giving some indication of where the league might be going in the next five years. Teams with multiple young stars in Boston and Philadelphia are poised to be the best teams in the league in the very near future, to say nothing of the Milwaukee Bucks, led by perhaps the best young player on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It extends further than that, as CBS named 33 additional players who were up for consideration in their draft – 23 of those guys play for Eastern Conference teams. It’s not just that a lot of the very best youngsters are in the East, it’s that the East is far deeper with young talent than the West, which could quickly manifest itself into a shift in dominance back toward the East in the coming years.
How does all this apply to the Hawks? Well, if the team isn’t going to be good for a few years and a majority of the young talent is in the Eastern Conference right now, then they should vote with the Western Conference on changing the playoff seeding, if the issue does come to a vote.
Not only would an affirmative vote put them on the correct side of the issue – seeding the best 16 teams in the playoffs would be good for the competitiveness of the league no matter what – it will likely be advantageous for them in a few years, when the East is better than the West and they’ll have an easier time making the playoffs than if only the best eight teams from the superior conference earn a spot.