It's not a great sign when you make a significant change to the way your league's competitive structure is organized and the biggest reaction is, "Not a bad start, but more could have been done."
The NBA announced Tuesday that the Board of Governors has voted to change the rules for the playoffs, removing division winners not just from guaranteed top-4 seed, but from a guaranteed playoff spot at all, as it turns out. Here are five things you need to know about the change:
1. A division winner might not make the playoffs at all. Simply put, the top eight teams in each conference, according to overall record, will get in the playoffs, and they will be seeded according to those records. Winning your division now means nothing more than a banner in the rafters, if you're still into that sort of thing. Last year the Blazers got a top-4 seed without a top-five record because they won the Northwest division, and as a result, the Spurs, who had a better record, got the No. 6 seed. That won't happen anymore.
To be clear, a division winner isn't even guaranteed a playoff spot at all anymore. It's unlikely that a division winner would finish outside of the top-eight conference records, but it's possible now, and given how terrible the Atlantic division has been over the last few years, it's definitely on the table at least.
This is good news for those teams that play in tough divisions like the Central or Southwest, and a fair adjustment. If you can't make a top-eight record, you don't deserve a playoff spot, period.
2. This still doesn't solve the competitive imbalance between the conferences. The competition committee was unsure about the travel problems related to eliminating conferences altogether, Adam Silver said earlier this year, and you can bet resistance to changing the format came from Eastern Conference owners who refuse to allow a scenario that significantly dampens their chances of making the playoffs.
The Warriors and Grizzlies battled in the second round this year. A Spurs-Warriors Western Conference Finals is extremely possible this season. The Warriors faced the Pelicans, in New Orelans, in the first round. You're going to have a significant amount of travel anyway. Things have changed a lot since these rules were first put in place when players were flying commercial and didn't have hyperbaric chambers onboard.
It's going to be a hard sell, but while the division change is great, the league still needs to eliminate conferences and just take the best 16 teams to the postseason.
3. The tiebreaker problem is still in play. Everyone was focused on the advantage of teams getting a top-four seed, despite the fact that it didn't guarantee them home-court advantage, so this seems like a big win. One problem: they didn't really fix the tiebreaker issue. The rule changes did adjust tiebreakers to make head-to-head record the No. 1 tiebreaker. Beat your opponent 2-1 or 3-1 and you get home-court advantage and/or the higher seed.
However, the second tiebreaker remains division title. And that's a problem, especially after last year.
See, thanks to Memphis' late season drop-off and San Antonio's inexplicable loss to the Pelicans on the last night of the season, the Rockets snuck into the two-seed. They finished tied with the Clippers in record. As division winner, they were granted the two-seed by tiebreaker. Under the new rules, they still would have gotten the two-seed. The two teams split the regular season series, 2-2, so the second-tiebreaker would have still gone to Houston under the new terms.
So why is this bad? Let's say that division winner wasn't a factor at all in this, and that the tie was broken according to non-division-winner rules. The order for that scenario goes 1. head-to-head, 2. division record (if the two teams are in the same division), 3. conference record, 4. record vs. playoff teams. Those are really good indicators of overall strength, and the Clippers had both a better conference record and a better record vs. playoff teams.
Under this scenario, the only way the Clippers would have lost out on the 2-seed (and a butter-soft matchup vs. the Mavericks in the first round, vs. the San Antonio bloodbath they wound up with) is if division-winner status mattered -- which it did, and still would under the new rules. That rule didn't just give Houston the much-softer two-seed. More importantly, it gave Houston home-court advantage in the second round, too, and if you'll remember the Clippers played the Rockets in the second round and home-court advantage wound up mattering very much.
You'd think home-court might have helped the Clippers stem the tide of their epic meltdown vs. Houston. The Clips still deserve all of the blame and the Rockets all of the credit for Houston's amazing comeback from being down 3-1, but the point is that the rule change doesn't address this problem. Keeping division-winner status involved in tiebreakers at all was a mistake.
4. Last year's Western playoffs would have been significantly changed by these rules. Beyond the above scenario and the problems it presented, the West playoffs would have been dramatically different. Without Portland being guaranteed a top-four seed, the West would have finished like this:
1. Golden State
In that scenario, the Warriors-Pelicans and Rockets-Mavs series go on the same. From there, it gets crazy. The Spurs manage to avoid the Clippers who knocked them off in seven games, but wind up with Memphis. Memphis is a tough, brutal, physical team, but also one that San Antonio swept in 2013. Given how easily the Warriors toppled the Grizzlies once they started aggressively doubling inside by not guarding Tony Allen, and how similar that strategy was to what the Spurs pulled in 2013, there's a good chance San Antonio gets past Memphis.
That would've meant a Warriors-Spurs matchup in the second-round, and... who knows how that works out. Portland likely falls to the Clippers. However, if you want to go down a crazy universe hole where the matchup is somehow worse than the Spurs (again, we're just talking hypotheticals), imagine if the Blazers had beaten the Clippers and pushed or beaten the Rockets in the second round. Does that convince LaMarcus Aldridge to stay? This scenario is extremely unlikely, but it's at least plausible, and that's the point. The division-winner rule had a domino effect on the West last year. It won't have (as much of) an impact next year.
5. Tanking for position gets easier now... but there's less reward. Teams that were trying to avoid certain matchups had to choose between home-court advantage and getting/avoiding the matchups they wanted before this change, because of how that last division winner was stuck in the No. 4 spot. Without that in place, teams will have more control over who they wind up facing, so you could see a little more of that.
On the other hand, you won't see as many teams tanking to get the five-spot to face that weak division winner. The field gets stronger now, so that tactic doesn't carry as much benefit. We'll see how this goes next year, but at least the NBA can say it's closer to a fair seeding system than it was last year.