ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Struass wrote yesterday that the NBA’s conference system needs to be abolished, since it currently awards playoff spots to teams well below .500. This season, for the first time since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams, a 50-win team could miss the playoffs.
Strauss makes reference to an incredibly important piece by TrueHoop writer Curtis Harris on how the current lottery system helps keep one conference stronger than the other (I made reference to this as well in my critique of the “wheel” draft proposal). I believe Strauss’ ideas deserve consideration because a change to the current playoff and lottery systems (perhaps something less radical than the “wheel”) is necessary to improve both the integrity of the game and its competitive balance.
Every year since 2009 (this number goes back further but that represents the scope of this piece) except the lockout-shortened season, a team in the West has missed the playoffs and moved ahead in the draft of at least one Eastern playoff team with a lesser record. What happened to each of those teams?
In 2009, the Phoenix Suns finished 46-36 and missed the playoffs. Four teams in the East, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, finished with worse records but made the playoffs. The Suns drafted Earl Clark with the 14th pick while the 8th-seed Pistons, which finished 39-43, selected Austin Daye with the 15th pick. The Suns were unable to capitalize on moving up because they left Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague (drafted 17th, 18th and 19th, respectively) on the board.
The Houston Rockets finished the regular season in 2010 with a 42-40 record and missed the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls finished 41-41 and claimed the 8th seed in the playoffs. This meant that by missing the playoffs, the Rockets only moved ahead of a single playoff team with a worse record. They selected Patrick Patterson 14th. He was later traded for Thomas Robinson, who has since been traded as well.
By missing the playoffs and moving ahead of only one team with a worse record, the Rockets didn’t really improve themselves. However, this is only because the Rockets drafted poorly. The Milwaukee Bucks owned the right to switch picks with the Bulls that year and exercised it to select Larry Sanders with the 15th pick. Also available when the Rockets selected was Eric Bledsoe, who went 18th to the Thunder, who subsequently traded him to the Clippers.
At the conclusion of the 2010-11 regular season, the Indiana Pacers claimed the 8th spot in the East playoff picture with a 37-45 record. The Houston Rockets finished 43-39 and missed the playoffs. The Pacers traded the 15th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft (Kawhi Leonard) to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill, who remains the team’s starting point guard.
By missing the playoffs, the Houston Rockets secured the 14th pick and selected Marcus Morris, since traded to the Suns. Once again, moving ahead of teams with worse records did not help the Rockets because they missed on Leonard with the pick. Houston nonetheless picked ahead of the Pacers, 76ers and Knicks, all of which made the playoffs but finished with worse records than Houston.
During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the 76ers finished 35-31 and secured the 8th seed in the East. The Jazz, the 8th seed in the West, likewise finished above .500 at 36-30. This season was the rare exception where the division of conferences did not significantly alter the draft order. The Rockets missed the playoffs in the West with a 34-32 record, which was worse than the 76ers’ record.
In 2013, the Milwaukee Bucks finished 38-44 and claimed the 8th seed in the East. The Bucks didn’t make out too badly, selecting Giannis Antetokounmpo, widely considered one of the top three talents in the entire draft, with the 15th pick. I feel pretty good about most of the predictions I made in my draft preview, but Antetokounmpo was the one player about whom I was spectacularly, hilariously wrong.
The 14th pick was owned by the 43-39 Utah Jazz, which missed the playoffs. The Jazz didn’t make out badly, either, packaging this pick with the 21st to the Timberwolves to move up and select Trey Burke. This one move may have stabilized the starting point guard position for the Jazz for the next 10+ years. Had the Jazz swapped records with the Houston Rockets, which finished 45-37 and claimed the 8th seed in the West, the Jazz would have owned the 18th pick instead of the 14th. It seems unlikely that Utah would have been able to trade for Burke if the team hadn’t moved up four spots by missing the playoffs.
Of all these examples, only the Jazz demonstrably improved their team as a result of moving ahead of teams with worse records. This wouldn’t be up for debate, however, if the Suns had selected Ty Lawson in 2009 and if the Rockets had selected Sanders or Bledsoe in 2010 and Leonard in 2011. The opportunity was afforded those teams by moving up, even if they failed in the execution.
This season could present the most egregious example of all. If the playoffs started today, the Dallas Mavericks, currently 43-30, would miss the playoffs. Six teams in playoff position in the East (every team except the Pacers and Heat) presently have a worse record than the Mavericks. Dallas sits 13 games over .500 and would pick ahead of the 31-40 Hawks. If the Hawks swapped positions with the 9th-place Knicks (something that’s unlikely to happen and outside the scope of this piece), the Hawks would move up four positions in the upcoming draft.
Leave aside any thoughts on the efficacy or ethics of tanking. The issue that most concerns me here is the issue Harris brought up. Over the long term, the disparity between the conferences is perpetuated by rewarding weak teams in the lesser conference with playoff position, and rewarding teams in the stronger conference that miss the playoffs with higher draft position. I’m open to any number of ideas to address this, including those of Strauss. But whatever happens, this needs to get fixed.