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Western Conference Insider: Realigning the West

By Art Garcia,
Posted Nov 19 2008 2:32PM

Oklahoma City is 1,488 miles from Portland, as the crow ... err, team charter flies. Dallas is only 185 miles from the Thunder's home base.

So does Oklahoma City share a divisional bond with the Mavericks, its closest NBA neighbor? Nope. At least not yet.

The Thunder resides in the Northwest Division, which made sense when the franchise was named the Sonics and made the Pacific Northwest home. Oklahoma City, two time zones removed from Seattle, is squarely in Southwest Division country.

The Thunder have quite a haul when it comes time to play road games with Northwest rivals like the Jazz.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

It would have made sense to group the Thunder with Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and New Orleans, but of course it wasn't that easy. The legal wrangling involved with the Sonics' relocation and the late start of the team's offseason move made realignment for this season impossible.

The NBA didn't have the time do redo divisions when schedules had to be hashed out for the 2008-09 campaign. The league had one schedule if the team stayed in Seattle and another for Oklahoma City.

And it wasn't as easy as just swapping out the two cities on road trips for the other 29 teams. Seattle and OKC are 1,526 miles apart. Imagine Boston going from a Portland-Seattle back-to-back to Portland-Oklahoma City. That wouldn't work.

And if the Thunder is thrown into the Southwest, what happens to the Grizzlies? Under the above scenario of OKC sharing the Southwest with the Texas trio and New Orleans, Memphis is the odd team out.

Would it be fair to move the Grizzlies into the Northwest? Memphis and Minnesota would be relatively close (704 miles) within the division, but actually not as close as Minnesota and Oklahoma City (693). The Grizzlies would also be looking at 1,851 miles of sky for trips to Portland, which is 363 more miles than separate OKC and the Blazers.

While a move to the Southwest would make sense for the Thunder, the Grizzlies get the short end of the stick and the long end of the trip. Under the current arrangement, the city in the Southwest the farthest away for Memphis is San Antonio at just 624 miles.

Is there an answer that makes the most sense for the 15 teams in the Western Conference and the three divisions? And does the situation need to be changed when every team plays the others in the conference three or four times already?

Sure. Divisions should mean something more than the champ being guaranteed a top-four playoff seed. Since the league is split into directional conferences and the divisions have regional names, those five-team sets should share some characteristics.

An informal poll of West team executives, plus the common sense approach of just looking at the map has forged one possible realignment solution. It's not perfect for everyone, but it makes more sense that what is out there now and would reduce travel (fuel costs) for several teams. As one GM reminded, the NBA is trying to go green.

Here are the three proposed divisions and the merits/drawbacks of each:

Realigning the West
An informal poll of West team executives (as well as some common sense from's Art Garcia) goes into a realigned Western Conference that makes a little more sense geographically.
Division Realignment Merits Drawbacks
Pacific: Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland and Sacramento. All the teams are actually in the Pacific Time zone, and California and Oregon own Pacific Ocean coastline. The Blazers cut down immensely on travel and don't lose an hour or two for division games when traveling east as they do in the current Northwest. The traditional Suns-Lakers rivalry is no longer a divisional one. (It became that much sweeter with Shaq shacking up in the Valley of the Sun.) But Lakers fans should welcome four yearly tussles with the Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and the rest of the up-and-coming Blazers.
Mountain: Denver, Minnesota, Memphis, Phoenix and Utah. At most, only one time zone separates the teams in this newly-christened division. (Don't focus on Arizona not observing Daylight Saving Time.) The states of Arizona, Utah and Colorado all share the Four Corners border, so their respective teams should share quarters. Minnesota doesn't have to travel two time zones for a divisional game in Portland. Memphis' travel does increase significantly, with its average divisional trip going from 472 miles in the Southwest to 1,026 miles. But Minnesota has dealt with that setup for years, so the Grizzlies won't be breaking new ground.
Southwest: Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Texas borders both Oklahoma and Louisiana. Considering geography and the Central Time zone, this is an easy one to group. OKC fans will have their allegiances tested, at least early on, with the Hornets coming back twice per season as a division foe.

These three divisions cause some major moving and shaking, but make the most sense in the long run. Well, barring another team relocating again or expansion. For the time being, eliminating the three-time zone Northwest is a definite plus.

"If you look at what we have now, you would never 'divide' the teams this way," one general manager said.

Bringing the Eastern Conference into the discussion, another GM in favor of the above proposal suggested a radical restructuring of the playoff format. While keeping the conferences and divisions intact, he supports seeding 1-16 regardless of conference affiliation. In other words, the top 16 teams get in.

"You shouldn't punish teams for their geographic position," he said, "and reward others."

Another exec also backed the top-16 format, adding that it would allow for truer playoff representation and eventually distribute talent more evenly via the lottery. It's an interesting argument and one to tackle in another column.

As far as reformatting the West, there's no word on whether this or any change is in the works. David Stern said in Oklahoma City earlier this season that realignment currently isn't on the league's agenda, but would listen if the subject was broached.

Another GM wondered if the teams could actually suggest realignment. In his words, the "league does what it wants to do when it wants to do it." One league executive said this just replaces one imperfect system with another one.

Yes, but it's less imperfect. There's no need to travel 1,488 miles to figure that out.

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