For over 20 years, the Detroit Pistons played in the Western Conference of the NBA. Looking at how many strong teams there are in the East now, how much easier would the path to the playoffs be for the Pistons, if they were still there?
The NBA of today is far different than when it started up about 75 years ago. We are not just talking about salaries, the value of franchises and the television coverage (which are way, way higher now).
Geography was also way different in the way the NBA was structured. Did you know that Indiana and Michigan were considered Western states? Well, for many years, the NBA did.
The reason many NBA teams started is, that arenas in the East and Midwest needed something to fill their open dates in the winter when the ice hockey teams were not in action. That is why Madison Square Garden owns the New York Knicks.
Now, their were no NHL teams in the South or West until very recently, there was no major impetus to have NBA teams there. So, the NBA started out being very lopsided geographically.
In its first season, following the merger of the NBL and BAA leagues, in 1949-50, there were a total of 17 teams (the Celtics and Knicks they only franchises among the 17 that survived and are still in their original city).
There was a Denver Nuggets that season but they folded after that year, and would not remerge for 20 years, and then in the new ABA.
Besides Denver, the Western Division (conferences came much later) consisted of teams from Wisconsin (Sheboygan, not Milwaukee), Iowa and Indiana.
The most southern NBA city was St. Louis. On the East Coast, it did not go farther down than Washington D.C.
The Pistons, then based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, played, as they do now, in the Central Division. However, a bunch of the teams that had been in the Western Division did not make it after the first season (No more NBA teams in Denver, Waterloo, Iowa or Sheboygan but Moline, Ill. survived), and the Pistons moved to the Western Division.
There were so many teams based on the East Coast, to balance things out, the Rochester (N.Y.) Royals (now Sacramento Kings) were moved to the West. Well, they were in the Western part of New York, close enough.
Sidenote: Those January and February games at Rochester must have been a ball of fun to get to.
The Pistons flourished as a Western team. Except for the Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan, they were quite competitive, as they avoided the big Eastern teams.
In 1955 and 1956, the Pistons made it to the NBA finals, losing to the Warriors and Nationals (later the 76ers). The Pistons would not make the finals again for 32 more years.
In the early 1960s, the Warriors moved to San Francisco and the Lakers to Los Angeles, but the NBA was still based in the Midwest and East. St. Louis was still the most West and farthest South team, outside of the California teams.
The Pistons stayed in the West when they moved to Detroit in 1958. It would stay that way for 10 more years, as teams were dropping off but none getting added. By 1965, the NBA only had nine teams.
With the addition of the Seattle SuperSonics and San Diego (soon to be in Houston) Rockets, Detroit moved to the East Division for the 1967-68 season.
For their own purposes, the Pistons would have been better off waiting a year, as they were pretty good that year but had to face the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics in the first round. The Pistons held a 2-1 lead in that series, but Boston won the next three games.
If the Pistons had been in the West still, they might have made at least the division finals, as outside of the Lakers, no West team was really dominant that season.
This season, the Pistons might also be in the same situation, having a better chance in the playoffs if in the Western Conference.
How would Detroit Pistons do in Western Conference this season?
In the losing for Victor Wembenyaya sweepstakes, the West has a lot of teams more interested in getting the No. 1 pick in the draft, than making the playoffs.
The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz all have no desire to make the playoffs. Sacramento does, but they usually find a way not to. Portland also wants to make the playoffs, but even with Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant, not a lot there.
To make the Play-in tournament, a team has to finish at least 10th out of the 15 teams in each conference (NBA has a lot more than the 9 teams they had back in the mid-60s).
So, Detroit if was suddenly moved back to the West, they really would only have to finish ahead of the Kings or Trail Blazers to make it. That is a heck of a lower bar than battling the Atlanta Hawks or Chicago Bulls for a Play-in berth.
Unfortunately, the NBA has a lot more teams west of the Mississippi now, so no need for Detroit to become a ‘Western’ city anymore. At least this season, it would have meant probably 8-10 more wins than they will have in the East.
The West had been the tougher conference of late, but this year, the Pistons could have made some noise, if the NBA reverted to its 1968 alignment.