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Travel Fears Shouldn’t Dissuade NBA From Reformatting Playoffs

If travel concerns are your reason for not supporting reformatting the NBA Playoffs, your argument is flawed.

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One of the major takeaways from the NBA’s 2017-18 regular season—aside from the fact that Ben Simmons is really, really good—is that the Denver Nuggets will probably be a strong advocate for playoff reform.

By the skin of their teeth, the Nuggets missed out on qualifying for the playoffs. By losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final night of the regular season, the 46-36 Nuggets now have a date with the draft lottery, although they would have much rather have had a date with the Houston Rockets.

The Nuggets now become the poster child for the renewed advocating of playoff reform. Denver, you see, was eliminated from the playoffs despite having a better record than three Eastern Conference teams that qualified—the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.

The Heat and Bucks each finished the season at 44-38, while the Wizards were 43-39.

With the regular season over and the playoffs set to begin, the first round matchups have now been set.

If we’re lucky, though, this may be one of the final few times that we see the traditional playoff format in action.

During All-Star Weekend, Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed that the league was discussing playoff reform. Because of the relative imbalance of talent in the Eastern and Western Conference, the cries for a modified playoff system that would simply take the 16 best teams in the league have only grown louder over the years.

The two obvious issues with the ’Best 16 In’ approach is the travel concerns and the imbalanced schedule. Teams such as the Trail Blazers, Heat and Celtics could find themselves in the ‘nightmarish’ scenario of having to play a team that’s thousands of miles away. Particularly with the 2-2-1-1-1 format, the toll of traveling between Boston and Portland, for example, would probably catch up to a team.

In other words, the winner of a Game 7 between the Celtics and Blazers in the first round would probably be at a competitive disadvantage in the second. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment.

While the concern is valid, it’s one that could only be addressed and resolved by doing a 2-3-2 format throughout the playoffs, or somehow figuring out a way to reduce the frequency of travel—not easy.

The other major issue—and it’s one that’s easier to fix—is the fact that teams only play 30 out of conference games. To make the system fair, each team would have to play at least 40.

Still, for want of allowing two teams from the same conference to play in the NBA Finals, the league is mulling its option.

I say: it’s about time.

To somewhat address the scheduling imbalance and the want to preserve the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format, the league revealed that they are also considering a ‘Modified Best 16 In’ playoff system in which the top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs and then be re-seeded based on how they fared in the regular season. The concept would more or less mimic what was done for the All-Star game, whereby All-Stars were chosen based on their conference and then redistributed once selected.

Although the Modified Best 16 In system wouldn’t necessarily get a team like the Nuggets into the playoffs, it would help preserve the distribution of TV markets, something that’s important to the league. A world in which 10 of the 16 playoff teams are from one conference, after all, isn’t ideal.

Again, this approach would also allow for two teams in the same conference to compete in the NBA Finals—something that’s never been possible.

With all of that said, let’s take a look at what this season’s first round of the NBA Playoffs would look like if the league adopted either the Best 16 In or Modified Best 16 In format and compare it with what we’re getting.

Here’s what’s actually going to happen this season…

In Western Conference Playoffs…

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (4) New Orleans Pelicans

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs

In the Eastern Conference Playoffs…

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami HEAT

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

Now, compare it to what would happen in with the Best 16 In playoff format, where five of the matchups would feature an Eastern Conference team battling a Western Conference team…

Best 16 In Playoff Format…

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (16) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (9) Utah Jazz

(5) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (12) San Antonio Spurs

(4) Boston Celtics vs. (13) Minnesota Timberwolves

(6) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (11) New Orlean Pelicans

(3) Golden State Warriors vs. (14) Denver Nuggets

(7) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (10) Indiana Pacers

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (15) Miami Heat

For the most part, when people think about intercostal playoff battles, Los Angeles and Boston is usually considered to be the worst case scenario. The truth is, though, that Portland to Miami is the furthest possible distance between NBA cities. That route is the only one that features teams separated by over 3,200 miles. Los Angeles to Boston is just over 2,950.

Interestingly, Portland to New Orleans is over 2,500 miles, and Portland to any of the NBA’s three Texas cities is over 2,000 miles. In other words, Portland can, and in this year’s playoffs, actually will face a daunting travel schedule. They will actually play the Pelicans.

Game 1 is on Saturday.

* * * * * *

Generally speaking, Eastern Conference cities are in closer proximity than Western. If you started out in Boston, you’d only need to travel 500 miles to pass through New York and Philadelphia on the way to Washington, D.C.

Quite similarly, the furthest distance between two Eastern Conference cities is less than 1,500 miles—that’s about the distance from Miami to either Boston or Toronto. 

The point here is that one could actually (and quite easily) make the argument that the playoffs would actually become more fair from a travel standpoint if Eastern Conference teams were subjected to the possibility of having the same daunting travel demands as as their Western Conference counterparts.

If, for example, the Knicks and Sixers played a playoff series, either team could opt to sleep in their own beds for the entire series.

By opening things up, Eastern teams would probably have to travel further distances more often, but in the majority of instances, their travel probably wouldn’t be any worse than what Western Conference teams already have to endure.

Of the five inter-conference playoff matchups listed above, Houston to Milwaukee (1,151 miles), Philadelphia to San Antonio (1,742 miles), Boston to Minneapolis (1,391 miles), Portland to Indianapolis (2,264 miles) and Cleveland to New Orleans (1,055) are all less miles than the distance between Portland and New Orleans. And that series is actually going to happen.

Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Phoenix could also find themselves in unenviable situations requiring them to cover a lot of miles.

Sure, the Eastern Conference teams might, too, but the probability is much less and could only be addressed by mixing the playoffs.

If the league opted for the Modified Best 16 In format, where it still chose eight teams from each conference (rather than the top 16 overall) it’s a very consistent story.

The result would be a minor shuffling of the teams at the bottom of the standings. The Nuggets would fall out, the Heat and Bucks would each move up one spot and the Wizards would get in as 16th.

As a result, the Rockets would play the Wizards instead of the Bucks, the Warriors would play the Heat instead of the Nuggets and the Raptors would play the Jazz instead of the Heat.

Houston would have to travel 1,408 miles to get to D.C. and the Raptors would have to travel 1,900 miles to get to Salt Lake City.

Neither of those distances is further than what the Blazers will have to travel to get to New Orleans, but they also aren’t much further than how far Western Conference teams normally have to travel, anyway.

The Warriors, in this instance, are an exception. Under this scenario, they would have to travel 3,100 miles to Miami. Being on the West coast, any matchup featuring an Atlantic or Southeast Division team, for the Warriors, would be similarly painful. But do recall that they beat the Pelicans in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs en route to winning the championship. And Miami isn’t that much further from Oakland than New Orleans.

Look, there are pros and cons to everything, and no solution is going to please everybody—not all the time, at least.

But if one of the arguments against reformatting the NBA playoffs is a concern about the potential of increasing the frequency of cross country travel, it might not actually be as big of a deal as many of us believe. Western Conference teams already have to face more daunting travel than their Eastern Conference counterparts, and at least by mixing the playoffs, the league would subject all teams to the same opportunity of brutality.

It might not be ideal, but it probably is fair. Or, at the very least, more fair.

Plus, at the end of the day, who wants to see an anticlimactic NBA Finals?

Ensuring that the two best teams get to compete for the championship is the pro that should probably outweigh the minor cons.

The only way to ensure that is to make the change that’s been a long time coming.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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