I was listening to a nationally broadcast sports radio program a couple of days ago and one of the commentators was puzzled by the fact that no one was talking that much about the "exciting" race in the NBA's Western Conference and he couldn't figure out why. He thought it peculiar that baseball's opening day was grabbing all the attention and the NBA, for all practical purposes, was being ignored.
The reason no one is talking about the NBA Western Conference standings is because the race really isn't all that exciting. There's a little drama surrounding the 8th spot in the standings, but the public at large is not going to spend a lot of time discussing who'll wind up No. 8.
Blame it on the NBA's playoff format. Everyone expects New Orleans, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Utah, Phoenix, and Houston are going to make the playoffs. So what's the big deal? Wait until the playoffs start and then perhaps we'll work up some enthusiasm.
However, if the NBA was structured like Major League baseball was back in my youth -- if the NBA's regular season actually meant something -- then the NBA West would be the hottest topic in sports. When I was a kid, the winner of the American League played the winner of the National League in the World Series. There were no playoffs, no words like "wild card" entered into the discussion. If you had something like that in the NBA, the "wow factor" in the Western Conference race would be off the charts.
Now I know the formula. An NBA's team income from the regular season is what allows that team to meet expenses. The playoffs are when the owners get to realize their profits. So, if this is true, the NBA playoff system, which, in its current format, seems to last as long as the regular season itself, is not going to be abandoned. Not only that, the TV accountants would probably veto any alterations in the system as well. So I know that what I'm about to propose is not going to be accepted or even liked by anyone, but that has never stopped me before.
My idea is to make the regular 82-game season mean something. But change the scheduling so there's none of this inter-conference shenanigans. Western Conference teams only play other Western Conference teams and Eastern Conference teams play only other Eastern Conference teams. Then, at the conclusion of those 82 games, the winner of the Western Conference plays the winner of the Eastern Conference in a best-of-seven series for the NBA championship. Simple as that.
If that was how the NBA was decided this year, then the current Western Conference race would mean something because only one of those teams would get to play after the regular season was over. The suspense involved in determining which team that might be would be a major topic of discussion both in the media and with the public at large.
If that was how the NBA was decided last year, the Mavericks would have played in the NBA finals (yeah!). But that's not why I'm proposing it. I'm suggesting it because it would cut down on travel expenses during the regular season, make each regular season game far more meaningful than it is today, create far more excitement in the day-to-day conference standings thus creating more visibility for the NBA in the overall sports universe, reduce the length of the playoffs to a more interest-bearing time frame, make it more probable that the NBA championship would actually be won by the best team in the NBA and, yes, get those tongues a-wagging.