NEW YORK — NBA fans do not necessarily have an unending desire to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they do want to see LeBron James. And for all the mystique that surrounds the Los Angeles Lakers, good luck finding someone who is compelled to watch their ragtag squad now that Kobe Bryant is hurt.
Aside from a few exceptions, the league’s best players tend to be members of the best teams. And when the best teams are in the playoffs, it is, quite simply, good for business.
And therein lies the conundrum facing NBA commissioner Adam Silver. If the season ended today, the NBA postseason would include a pair of 22-30 teams in the Eastern Conference — the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat.
Meanwhile in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder (28-25) and the New Orleans Pelicans (27-26) would be left out of the playoffs. And that would also mean that three of the game’s transcendent stars — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis — would be out of the playoffs, too.
The situation could become even more grisly for the league if Miami, with All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — was passed for the No. 8 seed by the Celtics, Nets, Pistons, or Pacers, all of which are within two games of the final spot.
“Fortunately, we’re still in the playoff hunt,” Wade said. “If we were in the West, we’d be in trouble. It would be over. We’d be planning our vacation, probably.”
Silver has made it clear he intends to pursue a more egalitarian system. On Saturday night, he discussed the possibility of the six division winners receiving playoff berths, and the next 10 qualifying solely based on their records. Or, Silver said, the top two teams in each division could qualify, essentially leaving four wild card playoff spots from either conference.
But to make changes, Silver said, it would probably require a more balanced schedule, which would require more travel.
“So I believe in the conference system,” Silver said. “Although I think there may be some tweaks.”
Here at All-Star Weekend, players had mixed opinions about a potential change. Some in the East are understandably tentative, because it’s a pretty good deal when you can be 22-30 and holding onto a playoff spot. Some just do not want to tinker with the status quo, and others say it is time for a change, time to put all of the best teams into the postseason even if they happen to be nestled in the same part of the country.
Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard, for one, is reluctant to mess with tradition, despite the fact that his team, with a sparking 36-17 record, is still just two games from plunging to the No. 7 seed in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference.
“It’s always been that way,” Lillard said of the seeding setup. “It’s kind of unfair to some of the teams in the West who have really good records and won’t make the playoffs, but that’s just the way it is. I’m not a fan of changing it from what it’s been.”
Atlanta Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap has witnessed the two extremes. This season his team is 43-11 — the NBA’s second-best record — and all but certain to secure the top seed in the East. A year ago, however, the Hawks made the playoffs with a 38-44 record while the Phoenix Suns were left out with a 48-34 mark.
“Who’s to say?” Millsap said. “With it being changed, we probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs last year, and we pushed a good team to seven games.”
And that is true, as Atlanta nearly stunned the top-seeded Pacers in the opening round. The momentum in this latest push for restructuring clearly has been spurred by the Western Conference’s consistent domination.
So far this season Western Conference teams are a combined 182-134 against the Eastern Conference. If form holds, it will be the 16th time in 17 seasons that the West wins the overall head-to-head matchup.
Yet that doesn’t really mean much when it comes to filling out the 16-team playoff field.
“As you might imagine, there are certain Eastern Conference owners who like the status quo,” Silver said, “and certain Western Conference owners who are saying change is due.”
Some players, such as Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick, say playoff restructuring sounds pleasant on the surface, but that it would lead to some logistical headaches.
“You run into more travel issues,” Redick said. “What happens if Boston is the No. 8 seed in the East and the Clippers are the No. 1 seed in the West and have the best overall record? Are you going to have those teams flying back and forth? That’s tough. I think the way it’s set up now is fine.”
While the West is in the midst of an impressive run, the balance of power always will be cyclical. Still, under a reformed system it wouldn’t really matter which conference was king.
“Honestly,” Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said, “as long as I make the playoffs, I don’t even care how it goes.”