Imag­ine the NBA play­offs with­out LeBron

James’ groin in­jury could lead to night­mare sce­nario for league’s bro­ken post-sea­son for­mat

The Province - - SPORTS - BEN GOLLIVER

WASH­ING­TON — The NBA’s play­off races are start­ing to take shape — well, two shapes.

In the East, pic­ture an hour­glass: heavy on top, light in the mid­dle and heavy at the bot­tom. Five teams can dream of a Fi­nals trip, the next six are trail­ing far be­hind in no man’s land, and the last four are al­ready pray­ing for a chance to draft Duke’s Zion Wil­liamson. Out West, imag­ine a stair­case that abuts a sharp cliff. The con­fer­ence’s 15 teams are grad­u­ally sep­a­rated one step at a time — ex­cept for the Phoenix Suns, who are all alone at the bot­tom of the canyon.

These du­elling land­scapes have been a boon for night-tonight con­ver­sa­tion among diehards, as the past four reg­u­lar sea­sons have of­ten felt like mere pre­ludes to LeBron James fac­ing the Golden State War­riors in the Fi­nals. This year, the NBA is bask­ing in the thrill of the un­known: The Toronto Rap­tors and Bos­ton Celtics have been freed from their bo­gey­man in the East, while the War­riors and Hous­ton Rock­ets have stum­bled enough to raise hopes among their com­peti­tors in the West.

Nev­er­the­less, the league’s long-stand­ing con­fer­ence im­bal­ance con­tin­ues and it threat­ens to se­ri­ously dampen the fun and ex­cite­ment dur­ing the play­offs.

The West’s dom­i­nance since Michael Jor­dan’s 1998 re­tire­ment is no se­cret. West teams have won 14 of the past 20 ti­tles, claim­ing a 68-43 (.613) head-to-head record in Fi­nals games. There have been 28 60-win teams over the past 20 years: 19 from the West and nine from the East. In 13 of the past 20 years, a West lot­tery team had a su­pe­rior record than the East’s eighth seed. By con­trast, an East lot­tery team was snubbed from the play­offs in this man­ner just twice over the same time pe­riod.

This sea­son, through Jan. 11, the West is 130-89 (.594) against the East. Ten of the NBA’s Top 16 teams, by both win­ning per­cent­age and point dif­fer­en­tial, are from the West — even though West teams are at a dis­ad­van­tage due to the NBA’s im­bal­anced reg­u­lar-sea­son sched­ule, which fea­tures 52 con­fer­ence games and 30 non-con­fer­ence games. In other words, if the play­offs started to­day, two de­serv­ing West teams would be at home while two un­de­serv­ing East teams would be headed to the post-sea­son.

The real night­mare sce­nario for the NBA’s league of­fice, me­dia and fans con­cerns James and the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers. The four-time MVP suf­fered a groin strain on Christ­mas, caus­ing him to miss at least 11 games. Dur­ing his ab­sence, the Lak­ers have dropped to the eighth seed, with the Utah Jazz nip­ping at their heels. Such is life in the un­for­giv­ing West, where vir­tu­ally ev­ery team is a twoweek in­jury away from the play­off bub­ble.

Imag­ine how dam­ag­ing it would be for the NBA’s tele­vi­sion rat­ings and fi­nan­cial bot­tom line if the league’s big­gest star and high­est-pro­file team won 45 games and missed the play­offs in the West, while the me­diocre Char­lotte Hor­nets, De­troit Pis­tons or Or­lando Magic slipped in as the East’s eighth seed with a los­ing record. Even if James and the Lak­ers hold on, at least three of the East’s first-round matchups are shap­ing up to be to­tal snooz­ers. The play­offs won’t ex­actly be start­ing with a bang.

This on­go­ing con­fer­ence im­bal­ance has led to mul­ti­ple re­form cam­paigns, in­clud­ing a 1-to-16 pro­posal which would take the league’s Top 16 teams into the play­offs re­gard­less of con­fer­ence. NBA com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver stated in Fe­bru­ary that he’s open to ex­plor­ing a switch and that the main “ob­sta­cle is travel, not tra­di­tion.” Aside from the cross-coun­try flight lo­gis­tics, though, East own­ers would also need se­ri­ous con­vinc­ing to vote for change that would harm their self-in­ter­ests.

Here’s hop­ing the re­form pro­pos­als are se­ri­ously con­sid­ered and de­bated again. In a league where stars work out 12 months a year to max­i­mize their tal­ents and cre­ate su­perteams to im­prove their ti­tle chances, it’s end­lessly frus­trat­ing that the NBA it­self set­tles for less than its best in the play­offs.

— THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

LeBron James gri­maces in pain after strain­ing his left groin dur­ing the Lak­ers’ game against Golden State in Oak­land on Christ­mas Day. The in­jury has caused James to miss at least 11 games, with the Lak­ers fall­ing to the eighth seed in his ab­sence.

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