LeBron James’ move from the Eastern Conference — where he’d previously spent the entirety of his career — out west to the Lakers this past summer was the latest catalyst in many analysts’ call for the NBA to revise its playoff format by abandoning the traditional conference construct and simply seeding the best teams in the league 1 through 16.
An egalitarian system, a pure meritocracy, unfettered by such random constraints as geography is appealing to be sure. Indeed, why should a 46-win Denver team ninth in the West a year ago have been left at home while three Eastern teams with inferior records — Miami, Milwaukee, and Washington — all got their ticket punched to the postseason?
The NBA, of course, has been reluctant to consider it. And there are some valid reasons for not doing that just yet. The most oft-cited is the potential additional travel burden, with teams criss-crossing the country every single round. Meh. The more problematic issue, in my estimation, is making overall record the sole criteria when not all schedules are weighted equally. That is, good Eastern teams presently have a theoretical advantage by playing a schedule more populated with bad Eastern teams.
Regardless, I suspect we’ll one day see it come to fruition. In the meantime, the NBA, which often embraces substantive change roughly at the same pace as your granny in the fast lane, can start dipping its toes in the warm waters of progress by dabbling in an event that is inherently more low-stakes:
The All-Star Game.
The league has already demonstrated some willingness in recent years to tinker with the rules. Not enough top-end centers left to warrant dedicated roster spots? OK — we’ll go with three “frontcourt” positions instead. A.C. Green getting elected over Karl Malone? Zaza Pachulia getting more votes than Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis? Alright — the popular vote is no longer the sole determinant of the starting lineups.
Last year’s abandoning of the usual East roster vs. West roster in favor of captains picking their teams was a thrilling success, even if the league did manage to botch it a bit by not televising the draft process. They fixed that this year.
There’s more to be fixed yet. Really — why stop there?
We can all agree that the level of elite talent in the league is not presently evenly distributed between East and West, right? So why do we still utilize a 12-12 split? Meanwhile, about the restrictions of needing to select this many frontcourt players and that many backcourt players … Gone! Outta here. What’s the point? It’s pretty silly anyway, isn’t it, in this supposed era of positionless basketball? Let’s embrace that.
Shouldn’t the goal be to get the best 24 players in the league out there? Oh, which reminds me — NBA teams now have 13 active players nightly, so why should the All-Star teams be different? There we go: the goal is now to have the best 26 players in the league out there. Regardless of position. Regardless of conference affiliation.
Voting ballots will now simply ask fans to make their top 10 selections. Coaches and players then will add their input — like they do now — to weed out the oddball choices. Then they’ll fill out the remaining roster spots similar to how they do now, but without all the needless and pointless restrictions. If an Eastern coach feels like seven Western point guards are deserving, he can vote that way. Et cetera, et cetera. And then the top two vote-getters, the captains, will draft their teams.
Wouldn’t that be fun? And productive, too. Because once the league discovers how freeing it can be to shrug off the burdensome shackles of tradition, maybe then it can start to enact some changes that actually matter.
THREE MORE THOUGHTS
The Doncic that got away
Some teams remain perpetually bad because they make perpetually dumb decisions. The Atlanta Hawks have long been in need of a transformative star. They had one fall into their laps at the 2018 NBA Draft when the Suns took DeAndre Ayton first and the Kings went with Marvin Bagley second. Sitting right there was Luka Doncic, hailed for years as a future star given the prowess, savvy, and killer instinct displayed on an international stage. Atlanta selected him, but only because it had a [rearranged deal to ship him to Dallas for Trae Young and future first. How’s that working out? Young, billed as Steph Curry 2.0, is shooting 29.1 percent from deep. Doncic, meanwhile, is already a do-it-all star with ice in his veins (as displayed in Friday’s clutch win vs.the Wolves), and one of the leading All-Star vote-getters. Atlanta had its star in hand. And then they Hawked it up.
Steph Curry: 3-point machine
The Warriors star hit five 3-pointers in Friday night’s rout of the Chicago Bulls — bringing him to 2,285 made treys in his career — good for third place on the NBA’s all-time list. Only Ray Allen (2,973) and Reggie Miller (2,560) have made more. And, barring significant injury to him, they won’t be ahead of him for long. Curry’s 3-point prowess has changed the very calculus the league operates by. Miller had exactly one season of more than 200 makes from distance, converting 229 in 1996-97. Allen did it five times — hitting his peak with 269 in 2005-06. Curry’s already topped 200 in six seasons — including making 402 in 2015-16. If the likes of Allen and Miller helped change the 3 from novel oddity to useful tool, Curry’s efficiency from deep fully weaponized the shot. In an odd sort of way, he is very much the Wilt Chamberlain of this generation.
No brotherly love in Philly
The Sixers cashed in their chips to bring in the supremely talented but perpetually disgruntled Jimmy Butler earlier this season, and are learning the hard way that skill alone isn’t enough to band-aid over a gaping hole in the chemistry department. Since Butler’s arrival, All-Star big man Joel Embiid has groused about his reduced role in the offense. Ben Simmons called his teammates soft after Friday’s loss to the Hawks. And reports surfaced this week that Butler was already proving to be a headache, constantly challenging coach Brett Brown over perceived deficiencies in his offensive scheme. Who could have seen this coming? If only Butler had some previous history of blowing up team chemistry that the Sixers could have looked to as a guidepost for his behavior. Oh, wait …