Is it time for the NBA to junk the current playoff format and combine the two conferences into one 16-team postseason tournament? That has been discussed occasionally in the past, and an argument can be made that it would vastly improve this year’s playoff field.
The Western Conference is far, far deeper than the East. The Minnesota Timberwolves would be in the playoffs in the East but didn’t come close in the West. The Atlanta Hawks are going to finish well under .500, and they are in. A team with a negative points differential on the season doesn’t deserve to play postseason basketball, but that will be the case with the Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats and Brooklyn Nets.
The Miami Heat remain the odds-on favorite for the NBA title at 2-1, and it’s obvious that the Heat and Indiana Pacers (6-1) have a big advantage over the top contenders in the West. Both Miami and Indiana will easily roll through their first-round opponents, probably in sweeps. That will allow those two teams to get plenty of rest, which could be crucial for Miami with Dwyane Wade. The Heat would then be huge favorites against either a Toronto or Washington in the conference semifinals. Neither the Raptors nor Wizards have playoff experience. The Pacers would have a tougher challenge against a Brooklyn or Chicago, but the Nets (Brook Lopez) and Bulls (Derrick Rose) are without injured stars.
Any team can beat anyone out West. The Spurs are 3-1 and would have home-court advantage through the NBA Finals. They are also only the 13th team in league history to win at least 30 road games in a season, and seven of the past 12 won the NBA championship. The last club with at least 30 road wins? The 2007-08 Celtics, who were 31-10.
The Spurs could have to open against a 50-win Memphis Grizzlies or Dallas Mavericks club. Then perhaps a second-round matchup against Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Houston Rockets (20-1), who won the season series against the Spurs.
The last thing San Antonio wants is to have to face Oklahoma City (9-2) in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder are 4-0 against the Spurs this season and have the MVP in Kevin Durant, not to mention a finally healthy Russell Westbrook. That last time OKC was fully healthy in the playoffs, it beat San Antonio in the 2012 West Finals despite the fact that those Spurs took a 2-0 series lead and had won 20 straight games.
It’s far from a sure thing the Thunder would even beat Doc Rivers’ Los Angeles Clippers (8-1) in the conference semifinals. The Clips are going to set a franchise record for wins and are perhaps the deepest team in the NBA. Blake Griffin is having an MVP-caliber season, and DeAndre Jordan has blossomed into a dominant force under Rivers.
The Clippers can roll out a second team of Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, Glen Davis and Danny Granger that would probably beat a few of those Eastern playoff clubs. The Clippers could also easily lose in the first round to Golden State (28-1). The West is going to be a war of attrition.