Monday, March 31, 2008

50 Wins and No Playoffs - A Case for Playoff Seeding Change

The Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, and Dallas Mavericks are engaged in a heated battle for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. We could potentially see a 50-win team be excluded from the playoffs in the West while a team with less than 40 wins gets in the playoffs in the East. The Western Conference team that just misses the playoffs would likely be the 3rd or 4th seed in the East, but instead is forced to sit at home to watch a flawed collection of teams fight for a title that they should have a right to fight for themselves.

It was said that the Western conference dominance is cyclical, but if you look at the young talent base brewing in the West, you will see that it will only get stronger. The best young point guards are in the West (Chris Paul, Derron Williams, Parker), most of the best young bigs (Stoudemire, Ming, Jefferson, Bynum, Boozer, Biedrins, Odom), and both current and rising stars that will be around for a long time (Kobe, McGrady, Roy, Durant, Ellis, Davis, Nowitzki, Anthony, Aldridge, etc.)

The west is a beast and it is unfair that we will likely see a repeat of this year's playoff race dilemma for years to come.

It's time for a change, David Stern. Revamp the existing playoff season in favor of one that will allow the best of the NBA to compete for the title. Warriors telecast man, Bob Fitzgerald put together a brilliant plan that not only fixes the current playoff system, but also addresses the current conference alignment and how to make it more schedule/travel friendly for all NBA teams.

In his new plan the conferences would look like this:

According to Fitz:

Currently, the Warriors play each Eastern Conference team twice (home and away). They would continue to do exactly the same thing under this suggested format. Ten Eastern Conference teams would result in 20 regular season games for the Warriors.

Currently, the Warriors play teams such as San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Memphis four times (sometimes three). That is the same number of times they play the Sacramento Kings, Lakers and Clippers, which should be their divisional and geographic rivals. This makes no sense from a travel perspective and the time zone change doesn’t work well for television broadcasts either. Create a Central Conference and play each of the 10 Central teams twice, which would add 20 more regular season games.

This results in an 80-game schedule (once the amount of the league season), much less travel, better rest and health for players, better local TV broadcasting opportunities, the nurturing of geographic rivalries and familiarity with nearby opponents (think Red Sox/ Yankees).

This leads us to the playoffs. If Fitzgerald's plan was implemented, the top finishers in each of the 6 divisions would automatically receive playoff bids. The rest of the field would be made up of the 10 best teams based on record, regardless of region or division. Seeding of the teams would be based on regular season record, placed in a 16-team bracket, and playing a 7-game (2-3-2 format) series.

One wrinkle in this process I would add is that I would award the top 6 division teams the top seeds so that more importance is placed on winning your division.

Currently, the playoff seeding would look like this:

* click picture for larger view *

Oh the possibilities!!! Unlikely and thrilling match-ups that would only be possible if the two teams meet in the finals are now a reality!! Kobe vs. Lebron, Howard vs. Anthony, Paul vs. Agent Zero...on and on. And that's just round 1!!! In the Round 2, we could see Boston vs. Phoenix, Golden State vs. Cleveland, Detroit vs. San Antonio, and Orlando vs. New Orleans. Think of what that would do to the ratings.

The best of the best battle it out instead of weak Eastern teams that struggle to even reach .500. The best of each side of the bracket meet to find out, without a doubt, who is the best in the NBA. When the Western Conference Finals generates more interest than the NBA Finals, something is wrong.

Not only does this new playoff system and conference alignment make the NBA a more entertaining and fair product, it also has some pleasant side effects.

  1. With the mixed seeding of the playoffs, teams will no longer be reluctant to trade within their own conferences. This will open up new opportunities to deal and more options are available for GM's to improve their teams, balance their rosters, and maximize their return on player assets.
  2. Western Conference teams that just miss the playoffs after a 50-win season won't end up with a better draft pick than a weaker group of Eastern Conference teams that struggle to win 40 games. Lottery talent is distributed fairly among the worst teams.
  3. Good teams and their fans get to enjoy more basketball.

It would be a shame to not be able to see all the best teams play in the post season. There are so many benefits to a change in a system. The NBA has a history of being open to change and I hope this season serves as a wake-up call that something needs to be done.

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