LOS ANGELES • The National Basketball Association's (NBA) play-off 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 behind in no-man's land, and the last four are already praying they can draft Duke's Zion Williamson - arguably this year's top college prospect.
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 as the past four seasons have often felt like mere preludes to LeBron James facing the Golden State Warriors in the finale.
This year, the league is basking in the thrill of the unknown. The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have been freed from James - for so long the East's bogeyman - while the Warriors have stumbled enough to raise hopes among the other competitors in the West.
Nevertheless, the league's longstanding conference imbalance continues, and it threatens to seriously dampen the fun and excitement during the play-offs.
The West's dominance since Michael Jordan's retirement from the Chicago Bulls in 1999 is no secret. They have won 14 of the past 20 titles, claiming a 68-43 head-to-head record in Finals games. There have been 28 60-win teams over the past 20 years and 19 have come from the West.
In 13 of the past 20 years, a West lottery team had a superior record than the East's eighth seed.
And, despite the new blood at the top of the East, the macro trend between the conferences is holding.
Ten of the league'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 play-offs started today, two deserving West teams would be at home while two undeserving East teams would be headed to the post-season.
That is unfair and unfortunate, but it gets worse when one considers which teams might be snubbed. Anthony Davis, arguably a top-five talent, would have a far easier time leading the New Orleans Pelicans into the play-offs in the East.
Ditto for the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, the presumptive Rookie of the Year and one of the leading All-Star vote-getters.
But the real nightmare scenario for the NBA concerns James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The four-time Most Valuable Player suffered a groin strain on Christmas, causing him to miss 12 games and counting.
During his absence, the Lakers have dropped to eighth, with the Utah Jazz nipping at their heels.
Such is life in the unforgiving West, where virtually every team are a two-week injury away from the play-off bubble. Imagine how damaging it would be for the TV ratings and the league's financial bottom line if James misses out on the play-offs, while the mediocre Charlotte Hornets slip in as the East's eighth seed with a losing record.
This ongoing conference imbalance has led to multiple reform campaigns, including a one-to-16 proposal which would take the league's top-16 teams into the play-offs regardless of conference.
It is endlessly frustrating that the NBA settles for less than its best in the play-offs.