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ISSUE 121 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2008

Inside the Lines: Playoffs restructured

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer

Friday, March 21, 2008

It's March, and it's time to start thinking about basketball. For a moment, let's ignore the thrilling first round of the NCAA tournament, because it's time to talk NBA basketball. The playoffs are fast approaching, and it's not a stretch to say that it's been one of the most competitive, exciting seasons in the last ten years of the league. The main reason for this is the Western Conference's stacked lineup of teams.

The West has been the dominant conference in the NBA for almost a decade. Yes, the East has won the title a few times; yes, there have been some great teams -- namely Detroit -- but overall, the Eastern Conference sucks. Particularly when it comes to depth, the East can't hold a candle to the West, and today this fact is more obvious than ever. As of Sunday, 10 teams in the West had winning records, as compared to only six in the East (and one of those teams is just a half a game over .500).

If the playoffs started today, the ninth seed in the West, Denver, would be out of the playoffs, but would be the fourth seed in the East & and that's before you take into account that East teams have easier schedules.

Some argue that difference is minute, saying that all 30 teams in the league have 58 of their 82 games against the same opponents. The other 24 games, however, vary greatly in their difficulty. The average winning percentage for the East is .471; it's .529 for the West. There are nine teams in the West with a winning percentage of .600 or better; there are just three in the East. Two and a half games separate the first and seventh seeds in the West; 20 games separate those seeds in the East.

This hypercompetitive Western Conference has created a dream atmosphere for NBA fans. Every matchup in the Western Conference playoffs is going to be between two potential title-winners, even in the first round. If the playoffs started today, the L.A. Lakers, winners of three titles earlier in the decade and favored by some analysts this year, would play Dallas, the 2006 finalists, in the first round.

This disparity has become unfair for Western Conference teams. Denver is going to finish the season around 15 games over .500 and not make the playoffs, and at least one if not three teams in the Eastern Conference with losing records will make the playoffs. That's ridiculous. I think it's time the NBA changes its playoff seeding, or even restructures the league completely, to balance out the competition and playoff distribution.

There have been several suggestions of playoff re-seeding in the last few years. Even well-known ESPN analysts like Bill Simmons have suggested radical methods of re-seeding teams for the playoffs to level the balance. Ideally, it would be this simple: the 16 teams with the best records would make the playoffs, period. If not for logistical difficulties, regional rivalries and of course stubborn tradition, I think the NBA should adopt what the English Premier League, England's highest soccer league and arguably the best in the world, uses: a single table with no conference or divisional groups.

There are 30 teams in the NBA. A team would play each squad three times, for a total of 87 games. Many argue that the regular season is already too long, but my proposal would be fair and square for every team in the league. At the end of the season, the top 16 teams in the league would be seeded according to their record. If two teams were tied, their in-season head-to-head results would break the tie. Home and away equality would be an issue; so I propose teams alternate each year between 44 home games and 43 on the road.

Of course, my ideas are all moot because commissioner David Stern has said repeatedly that he won't change the playoff seeding structure. He argues that there has been an ebb and flow between the East and West for as long the NBA has been around, but he ignores the fact that the disparity has never been worse, that the West has been better for almost a decade, and there are no signs of this inequality improving or reversing any time soon.

Usually Stern does an admirable job as commissioner, and he is probably the best sports commissioner out of all the major U.S. sports (not that his competition is hard to beat), but this is one case where I think he's dragging his feet in the mud of tradition.

The NBA needs to evolve and adapt to league conditions to stay fair and competitive. In the meantime, all we can do is feel sorry for teams like Denver and Portland, who will once again be on the outside looking in, knowing that teams far worse are enjoying (short-lived) playoff glory in the Eastern Conference, and knowing that the NBA will continue to reward bad franchises and punish successful ones.

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