FIEGE: Playoff Format Hampers Western Conference Teams
Out of Our League

Saturday night ushered in the best holiday of the year, one that lasts for nearly two months and captivates millions of people around the globe — the NBA playoffs.

Gone are the days of the post-All-Star-Game funk and the everyone-is-watching-March-Madness-anyway attitudes. Now that the league’s 16 best teams (read: the league’s eight best teams and the Eastern Conference) are vying for the prestige of a championship, we the fans are in for some of the best basketball to be played all year. This iteration of the playoffs is shaping up to be one of the most interesting in years, and for reasons other than the fact that the Miami Heat will not be in the NBA Finals.

The 2015 season has proven to be one of the most damning condemnations for the current formatting of the playoffs. Hindered by the arbitrary division of East and West, the formatting has, in recent years, consistently led to a lopsided bracketing of the teams in contention for the NBA championship. The Western Conference chews up and spits out its teams up through the final game of the regular season, while the Eastern Conference coddles its teams in comparison.

Nothing illustrated this discrepancy more than one of the final games of the regular season, when the San Antonio Spurs’ loss to the New Orleans Pelicans resulted in the Spurs being seeded sixth instead of second in the West, the Pelicans making the playoffs after a three year drought and the Oklahoma Thunder missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Whereas a slide from second to sixth in the West was the result of one game, the same slide would have required a losing streak of well over 10 games in the East. Furthermore, the same Thunder team that will be watching the playoffs from the couch this year, despite having won 45 games, would have been the sixth seed in the East.

The competition for the NBA championship suffers as a result of this disparity because, in reality, it is not the 16 best teams that compete against one another, nor is there an equal level of difficulty, independent of conference, for a given team to advance to the finals.

That being said, it comes as no surprise that the number one seed of this year’s Western Conference finished the regular season as the league’s best team and brought historic success to its organization. With a 67-15 record, the Golden State Warriors posted a winning percentage of .817, which not only was the team’s first time breaking the .700 mark in 39 years, but also ties for the fifth best NBA winning percentage of all time.

This puts the Warriors in good company: of the 10 teams to ever post a winning percentage of .817 or higher, eight have gone on to win the NBA championship. The biased fan in me, however, would like to point out that the Dallas Mavericks also had a 67-15 record prior to getting swept in the first round of the 2007 playoffs by the Warriors. I would love for karmic retribution to rear its head against Golden State this postseason.

All jokes aside, while I do believe the Warriors are favorites to win it all this year, one must acknowledge the fact that no game will be a sure-fire victory in the Western Conference playoffs. Down the stretch, luck and chance will play large roles in determining who becomes the conference’s Finals representative.

Taking a closer look at the Eastern Conference, it will be interesting to watch how perennial title-contender LeBron James’ experiment in Cleveland pans out in its first year. LeBron has been a mainstay of the NBA playoffs in the past decade, making it to the Finals five times in that span. It was assumed that partnering with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would make the journey to the Larry O’Brien trophy easier than it has ever been.

Of course, the season did not start off rosy — marred by chemistry issues and an aging LeBron, the Cavaliers went through the majority of this season in a series of fits and starts. They have shored up their act as of late and are peaking at the right time: Dion Waiters is off the team, Kevin Love has accepted his role as the third scoring option, LeBron is healthy again and Iman Shumpert’s hair is as fresh as ever.

I believe that, in a predictable Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers will easily make it to the conference finals and face off against the Atlanta Hawks, where things will come down to Cleveland’s “Hero Ball” versus Atlanta’s “Poor Man’s Spurs Basketball.” The Hawks have won three out of the four matchups between the two teams this season, and as such, it would not be absurd to imagine the ushering in of a new era this postseason, in which LeBron is watching the NBA in June from the same viewpoint as you and I.


Max Fiege is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final appearance of OUT OF OUR LEAGUE this semester.

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