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Art Garcia

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The Thunder could win 50 games this season, but will start the playoffs on the road.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

An easy way to make playoffs' opening round more fair


Posted Apr 14 2010 5:15PM

Do the best always make the playoffs? Whether the sport is dealing with conferences, leagues, divisions or districts from any level from high school to pro, arguments typically arise about those who get snubbed.

The wild card in baseball has opened up more questions than answers. Watered-down divisions in the NFL unbalance the playoffs.

The NBA, though, goes largely untouched. More than half the teams already reach the postseason -- 16 of 30 -- leaving little doubt that the best teams are somewhere in there. But for those 16 that live to play on after Wednesday's final day of the regular season, there's a definite disparity in talent level between the Eastern and Western Conference playoff brackets.

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As has been the case for the last decade, the West is considerably stronger. Going into the last night of the regular season, eight of the top 12 records in the league (67 percent) belong to West teams.

The current playoff system means a potential 50-win team (Oklahoma City) in the West has essentially the same road to advance as a potentially losing team (Chicago) in the East. Both are eighth seeds (though the Bulls haven't clinched No. 8 yet) and would have to face No. 1 seeds -- Thunder vs. Lakers and Bulls vs. Cavs.

Another way to look at it: The top four seeds in the West each have 53 or more wins, setting up first-round series against three teams with at least 50 wins (and perhaps a fourth if Oklahoma City beats Memphis on Wednesday night). The East first round is nowhere near as treacherous. Fifty wins there means facing an opponent with no more than 46 wins going into Wednesday.

Throw out the conferences
How the playoffs would look, 1-16
1. Cleveland (61-20)
16. Chicago (40-41)
8. Atlanta (52-29)
9. Boston (50-31)
4. Dallas (54-27)
13. Miami (46-35)
5. Utah (53-28)
12. Oklahoma City (49-32)
2. Orlando (58-23)
15. Charlotte (44-37)
7. Denver (53-29)
10. Portland (50-31)
3. L.A. Lakers (57-24)
14. Milwaukee (45-36)
6. Phoenix (53-28)
11. San Antonio (50-31)
Losing records that made playoffs
'99-'00 to '08-'09: 7 (All in East)
'89-'90 to '98-'99: 10 (5 East, 5 West)
45 or fewer wins to make playoffs*
'99-'00 to '08-'09: 54 (40 East, 14 West)
'89-'90 to '98-'99: 44 (25 East, 19 West)
* No team won 45 games in 1999 (lockout season)
-- Courtesy Elias Sports Bureau

Those who argue that the NBA regular season is meaningless might get ample support from the Thunder, Spurs, Blazers and Nuggets. They're stand to begin the playoffs on the road simply due to geography.

Solution? Seeding the current playoff teams from both leagues 1-16, using the current tiebreaker rules, would even out the first round. The No. 1 seed would face worst record, No. 2 gets 15 and so on.

This wouldn't change the matchups for the top two seeds, with Cleveland-Chicago and Orlando-Charlotte still intact. After those two, the changes are stark. (See chart.)

The defending champion Lakers (57-24), seeded third, avoid scoring champ Kevin Durant in favor of No. 14 Milwaukee (45-36). No. 4 Dallas (54-27) goes from San Antonio (50-31) now to No. 12 Miami (46-35). Oklahoma City (49-32) would earn a 12th seed and hooks up with No. 5 Utah (53-28). No. 7 Denver (53-29) would open at home against No. 10 Portland (50-31).

There are several reasons against going to 1-16, most dealing with history and tradition. It can be argued that records can't be compared across conferences because conference teams play each other three or four times and go against the other conference only twice.

"They would have to find a way to even out the schedule," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.

Maybe not. Home-court advantage in the Finals is based on overall record, effectively ignoring the East-West distinction in scheduling. Why not just ignore it to set playoff seedings?

Considering the strength of the West over the East this season (246-203), winning 50 games in the West seems to be an even greater feat. "If you prorate it out, winning 50 in the West is probably equal to winning 55 or 56 in the East," said Suns point guard Steve Nash.

The West is deep as usual ... especially at the bottom end of the playoff bracket. Seven teams with losing records have qualified for the playoffs over the last 10 years (2000-2009) -- all in the East. Of the 54 teams to reach the postseason over that span with 45 or fewer wins, 40 have come from the East.

"It used to be the same way when you had the Bulls and Pistons and all the good teams in the East," Gentry said. "It goes in cycles. I'm a traditionalist. I don't like the designated hitter, I don't like interleague play. I just think you keep it the same and whatever happens, happens."

But this is about delivering the best basketball in every round. Dividing teams based on geography, regional rivalries and history makes sense during the regular season. In an age of private planes, such an arbitrary divide doesn't seem as necessary for the playoffs.

"The best six to eight teams are going to be where they need to be," Nash said. "I understand the merit in purely seeding it, because that would be the purest form of fair seeding. But when you talk about TV and time and travel, I don't know if it works.

"We really should get rid of the divisions. I don't understand what role that plays. I don't think the fans really care about whether it's the Pacific Division or the Midwest. All the fans care about is one through eight."

Considering the Midwest no longer exists, Nash made his point for division irrelevance.

Still, are conference titles any more significant? If the playoffs were seeded by the whole league, rather than split into conferences, wouldn't that increase the chances for more competitive and compelling series? Wouldn't that appeal to TNT and ESPN/ABC?

"I would listen, but it might be tough to implement," said John Vandegrift, Turner's vice president of programming. "That might be something to maybe eventually consider. You have to get everyone on same page -- the league, TV partners and Players Association. It would be monumental task, but I've learned to consider everything that comes down the pike."

Better series would serve the long-term good of the league, its players, broadcast partners and fans.

Still, change won't come easily. There's currently no groundswell to overhaul the system.

"I like the fact that the West plays the East [in the Finals]," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "That's the only thing I know. That's how I grew up. I like it the way it is, even though there's a chance that eight West teams will get 50 wins. There's going to be a lot of great basketball and a lot of tough first-round outs."

LeBron staying put?

The newest Cavalier expects to remain teammates with LeBron James for years to come. That's at least the feeling Antawn Jamison is getting.

"You never get any inkling that he has anything else going on other than the Cleveland Cavaliers," Jamison said. "Whether its commercials or other stuff, it's still basketball 24-7. It's all about the Cavaliers and doing everything he can to put us in position to be successful."

James, the MVP favorite, is the giant panda in this summer's free agency carnival. Jamison sees why.

"A lot of people look at LeBron as a great athlete that can do spectacular things," he said. "Going up against him and now playing with him, you see how he can take it up to another level. He hates to lose. The input he has in the huddles and practices, this guy is by far the most-focused, most-determined athlete I've ever been around.

"The guy wants to win and he's going to do it by any means necessary. It's all about winning a championship with LeBron."

Quotable

"It's just a practice in front of 20,000 people."
-- Lakers forward Lamar Odom on Tuesday's win over Sacramento.

Starting 5

1. Better late-season battle: Bull-Raptors or Del Negro-Paxson?

2. Good time to be named Brooks with awards season coming up -- Aaron (Improved) and Scott (Coach).

3. Did OKC angle to get the Lakers? Sure looks that way.

4. Enjoying your nap, LeBron and Kobe?

5. If the playoffs started today, seven teams would have to take a plane to get their first-round game. Spurs, enjoy your stay in Dallas.

Give-n-Go: Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay

AG: You guys were in the playoff hunt for a good while. What happened?

RG: We had lapses. The good teams really don't have as many lapses as we did. Those definitely hurt us, because we could have been sitting in good position.

AG: Did youth play a role in those lapses?

RG: I wouldn't say so. We're way beyond our years basketball-wise. The bulk of our youth was in our bench, and that hurt us trying to teach those guys quickly. We didn't really have anyone to come off the bench other than those young guys.

AG: Did just being in the race make the season more rewarding?

RG: It did. It made everything more important. The games meant a lot more to us and we worked harder to win and make it to the playoffs. We didn't make it, but we made strides.

AG: How does this set up the future in Memphis?

RG: We're going to be a team to be reckoned with. We've got heart, we play hard and we have talent.

AG: Where did you make your biggest improvement?

RG: Honestly, I didn't think I had that good of a season. There were a lot of ups and downs. I'm my biggest critic. I strive for perfection.

AG: You're a restricted free agent. How much have you thought about your future?

RG: I really haven't too much. The truth is I'm still here until something happens. All I want to do is win with this team and be loyal to them. I've been here four years and I'm going to be loyal until my time is done.

AG: So you're preference is to stay in Memphis?

RG: I'd love to, but it's a business. I have to take advantage of that at some point. Every player in the league deserves to hear out other teams and see how they feel about you. Some guys move around and some don't. I wouldn't mind staying here.

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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