The Brooklyn Nets are 1 of several sub-.500 teams battling for the final Eastern Conference playoff spots as the geographical divide in the NBA deepens.
The Brooklyn Nets enter their two-day Christmas break with a 16-19 record, having won eight of their last nine games. But like many teams in the Eastern Conference, they embody the ever-deepening divide along the NBA’s conference lines.
The Nets are 12-8 against Eastern Conference foes, tied with the Charlotte Hornets for the sixth-best intra-conference winning percentage in the East at .600.
But only four teams in the East have winning records against the West and it’s a list you might expect … with one notable exception:
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- Toronto Raptors (10-4, .714)
- Philadelphia 76ers (5-2, .714)
- Miami Heat (9-4, .692)
- Milwaukee Bucks (8-5, .615)
Yes, the Miami Heat have taken on the role of the exception to the rule — 9-4 against the West but just 7-12 against their own conference.
Many of you aren’t old enough to remember the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when the disparity was 180 degrees opposite of what it was now. Back then, the dominant teams were in the East, with the exception of the Los Angeles Lakers.
But it’s been more than 20 years since that dynamic began to flip to the point we are now, where the record of the 10th-best team currently in the West — the 17-16 Memphis Girzzlies — would be sixth in the East.
Six of the seven worst records in the NBA reside in the East, with the Orlando Magic (14-18), Washington Wizards (13-21), Atlanta Hawks (9-23), Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks (each 9-25) and Cleveland Cavaliers (8-25) all sporting lower winning percentages than the New Orleans Pelicans (15-19), who are 14th in the West.
For several years, analysts have called for the elimination of the conference-based playoff bracket in favor of a straight seeding of No. 1 through 16 based solely on overall record.
Based on the standings at the holiday break, 10 Western teams and just six Eastern clubs would make the cut, with the Charlotte Hornets gaining the No. 16 seed at (16-16) based on their head-to-head tiebreaker advantage (2-0) over the Heat.
But here’s the thing: The divide is actually deeper than that because of scheduling.
Western Conference teams would be disadvantaged under such a seeding arrangement, because 52 of their 82 games are played against teams from the stronger conference.
Hence, a 41-41 record in the East would be, based on schedule strength, worse than a 38- or 37-win team out West.
It’s one of those annoying factors that doesn’t get a lot of consideration when the 1-16 idea is thrown around.
If you want to try and get the 16 best teams into the playoff field, you have to level the regular-season playing field first by balancing the schedules more evenly.
Mathematically, there’s no way to divide 82 games by 30 teams and get something entirely even.
The National Hockey League had that magical formula for two seasons back after their merger with the old World Hockey Association, when they had 21 teams playing an 80-game schedule consisting of four games against every other club in the league before going to a 1-16 playoff.
Alas, they scrapped the plan after just two years in favor of a schedule leaning toward regional rivalries over all other considerations.
That’s the part of the equation that becomes the most difficult when wanting to appease the dreaded casual fans, the ones who only become mildly interested when the stakes are high and couldn’t care less about the NBA before Christmas nor from the day after Christmas until the Finals.
This is where the logical brain that understands the NBA is an entertainment industry and has to be concerned with the economics side of things falls into direct conflict with the NBA-addicted side of my head that thinks casual fans should be seen and not heard.
While copping to being a complete nerd who has whiled away thousands of hours on simulator-type games, I’ve tried some things in those virtual realms that could be fascinating in the real world, if completely unrealistic because of reality-based concerns such as travel.
Every four years, throw all 30 teams in a hopper. Throw 30 balls marked one through six in another hopper. Pull out one from each.
Brooklyn? Congratulations, you’re playing the next four years in Division 4, where you might end up matched up four times a year with Miami, Boston, Portland and the LA Clippers.
The six divisions are placed in a hopper and drawn randomly. The first three are in Conference 1. The second three go to Conference 2. Each conference gets eight playoff teams, seeded 1-8 based on overall record.
The two conference winners meet in the finals.
This is about the closest to a promotion-relegation system that U.S. sports could get.
But when you think about it, geographical divisions in sports are a 20th-century convention, dating back to a time when commercial air travel was in its infancy and travel was a very real impediment to scheduling.
Every team in professional sports flies charter now, in a team-owned plane that can come and go as necessary. The days when Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were wedging themselves into seats on a commercial flight are but a distant memory.
I mean, if you want to counter the league being so widely divided based on geographical lines, wouldn’t a solution be to take geography off the table?
Something to ponder on an NBA-free day.