January 20, 2018

It’s been on the backburner the last few weeks what with items like the trade deadline, talking heads’ insistence on continuing to debate analytics and llama chases, but the issue of conference imbalance has been on the minds of many over the course of this and recent years. The West continues to firmly dominate the little brother East to increasingly worrying levels, and among several attempted solutions to the league’s competitive balance has been the suggestion of moving to a conference-independent playoff system.

In other words, rather than seeding 1-8 within each conference and having the respective winners face off for the title, teams would be ranked 1-16 by record (no special seeding for division winners, no fluff – raw record alone) and play a four-round straight up bracket-style tournament to determine a winner.

What could some of the most intriguing potential first-round matchups look like if the league was using this proposed system this season? We won’t restrict only to East vs West pairings, but rather to those that would otherwise be totally or virtually impossible based on the current conference standings. Let’s have a little fun and break down a few of the most intriguing hypotheticals.

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Golden State Warriors vs Indiana Pacers

[A Pacers-Atlanta Hawks series would suffice here as well, given their fun seven-game series last year, but this is a bit too plausible under the actual current system.]

Who says no to Paul George scorching the league following his March return, leading the Pacers to that hypothetical 16-seed, and then guarding everyone from Steph Curry to David Lee and giving the Warriors way more trouble than they’d ever imagined in the first round? Only communists and Dubs fans, that’s who. Andrew Bogut and David West could vie for the title of “most blatantly dirty plays that somehow all three referees missed despite millions in the viewing audience seeing clear as day” as well, in case you needed a bit more convincing.

The junkies would get their fix, too – a high-brow coaching matchup between Steve Kerr and Frank Vogel for starters, plus a sneaky-fun look at one of the league’s newly-elite rim finishing guards in Curry going up against a true interior behemoth in Roy Hibbert who seems to channel otherwise unseen powers in the postseason, especially against star opponents. George versus Klay Thompson would be legitimately awesome to watch on both ends of the floor as well, and if Bogut wasn’t in a fistfight with West by Game 3, it might only be because Draymond Green got to him first. I’m all-in for this one.

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Cleveland Cavaliers vs San Antonio Spurs

Cleveland and San Antonio sit tenth and 11th respectively using our seeding guidelines at this moment, but the Cavs are in a stretch of very strong play and are just one game in the loss column back of what would be the seventh seed, with the Spurs’ .617 winning percentage a mere fraction of what would match them up with Cleveland (.619). It’s also easily conceivable that the two could meet as the 8-9 pairing, or even the 6-11 if things break well enough for the Cavs.

And come on, tell me seeing LeBron get another shot at last year’s Finals tormentors, this time with a younger and differently-built supporting cast, wouldn’t be awesome. It’d also be a rematch of 2007, the year in which the Spurs rudely welcomed LeBron to the Finals with a dominating sweep, though of course we the media would care about this particular narrative far more than the actual players involved.

From an individual standpoint, there’d be plenty of fun. Kawhi Leonard gets another national stage to showcase his talents as perhaps the most well-suited one-on-one LeBron defender in the league. Kyrie Irving, in his postseason debut, gets a matchup with one of the most experienced playoff point guards in history in an admittedly struggling Tony Parker. Boris Diaw and J.R. Smith can duel over who will inspire the most non-basketball-related stories over a week and a half (I’ve got Smith -1.5 as the early line). Tim Duncan gets one more shot at glory, while Kevin Love gets his first.

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The basketball might be uneven if both teams’ current level of play continues. But we learned a long time ago to never count out the Spurs until they’re eliminated, and Cleveland has gone through several inconsistent patches already this season. Mark me down for this one in our imaginary scenario.

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Memphis Grizzlies vs Chicago Bulls

This requires the slightest bit of generous math, with the Grizzlies currently occupying what would be the three-slot by a comfortable two-and-a-half-game margin while the Bulls sit joint eighth. But with Derrick Rose’s latest injury heartbreak, it’s far from out of the question that Chicago could drop off a good amount – they began their post-Rose time with a disappointing home loss to Charlotte Wednesday, after all. The Bulls are actually just five games above what would be the 14-seed in this format, though they’d have to be passed by six separate teams.

Allow us a bit of flexibility, though; it’s a meaningful brothers Gasol matchup! The two started opposite each other in the All-Star game this year, but no one actually watches that crap anyway, and this is one of the last years a truly high-stakes head-to-head between the two would be possible with Pau reaching the wrong end of the aging curve.

There’s plenty of other potential entertainment as well. We’d get to settle the age-old question, “Can broadcasters mention one playoff coach (Thibs) being fired after the season more often than they even utter the name of the opposing coach of the favored team (Joerger)?” There’s also a non-zero chance either Zach Randolph or Jo Noah rips the other’s head clean off and dunks it, which no one would want to miss.

Oh, and both these teams are awesome at defense and employ two of the deepest rosters in the league, for those who care about such things. True NBA die-hards would have a great time watching this series.

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Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder

Just kidding. Not only is this slightly too plausible under realistic circumstances (Houston could quite conceivably catch Memphis for the West’s two-seed if the Griz falter just a tad, and OKC has a chance to get to the seven-spot at this point given how the Spurs were playing prior to their latest three game winning streak), but I think I’d have to mute Bill Simmons on Twitter and refuse to visit Grantland for the entirety of the series to avoid reading another 475 times how awful the James Harden trade was. I love Grantland. I’ll pass.

Atlanta Hawks vs San Antonio Spurs

Teacher versus student. Prophet versus disciple. Jedi master versus Padowan (did I get that right?).

This is what would be at stake in just the first round if this format were in place. It would certainly require some movement on the Spurs’ part – as it is right now, they’d have to drop four more spots (a four-and-a-half-game cushion) to get to the 15-seed and a matchup with the Hawks. Atlanta could also theoretically drop to the three spot if Memphis closed the year in strong fashion.

The coaches would get plenty of love here, with COY frontrunner Mike Budenholzer going up against former boss Gregg Popovich. The Hawks have blatantly ripped off several elements of San Antonio’s hugely successful mantra and put them to good use on the way to a huge lead in the East, this while the original groundbreakers struggle against father time.

Almost regardless of the outcome, this series would be full of touchy-feely’s. If the Spurs lost as most would expect, it’d be an ushering of the old guard out by their non-abrasive, respectful heirs. If San Antonio made it a series, we’d get yet another year of marveling at Pop and Tim and Manu and Tony and their agelessness. Everyone wins.

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Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is an in-depth analyst and lover of all sports based in Salt Lake City. He can also be found at Salt City Hoops (Utah Jazz TrueHoop affiliate) as well as Hardwood Paroxysm and Nylon Calculus. Follow him on Twitter: @Ben_Dowsett

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