Posted Jan 4 2011 12:05PM
The Seattle Seahawks made history this week becoming the first team with a losing record to win an NFL division title and qualify for the playoffs. They're not the least bit ashamed nor should they be.
Rules are rules and the rules say Seattle is a playoff team.
Could that happen in the NBA?
The NBA has a long history of losing teams enjoying postseason spoils. The Houston Rockets actually won a Western Conference title and reached the Finals back in 1981 after a mediocre 40-42 regular season. Sub-.500 teams reach the postseason with regularity in the NBA. Since the league adopted the current six-division format in 2004-05, five teams with losing records have made the playoffs.
"We've had [losing] teams get in," Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "If you're one of the top eight teams in the conference, I don't see any problem with getting in. I don't think a team with a lesser record should get homecourt advantage against a team with a better record."
The Seahawks (7-9) are actually hosting a playoff game Saturday against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (11-5) on the basis of Seattle winning the NFC West. That couldn't happen in the NBA, since playoff homecourt advantage is based on record and not seeding.
since six divisions were adopted in 2004-05
But what if an NBA division winner isn't among the top eight teams in its conference? That's yet to happen, and this probably won't be the year, either, but it's worth noting that two divisions -- Pacific and Central -- currently have four of the five teams on the wrong side of .500. It's not a stretch to think that could happen to all five teams one season.
Currently a division winner is guaranteed a top-four seed, regardless of its record and standing among the eight conference playoff teams. It's mathematically conceivable that a division champ could end up without one of the top eight records in the conference and/or a losing record.
Divisions aren't set up under any sort of competitive-balance criteria. They're drawn up loosely based on geography, other than the three-time-zone-spanning Northwest Division. Each year seven teams are left out of the postseason in each conference. Other than chance or blind luck, what's to stop five of those bottom seven records coming from the same division? Absolutely nothing.
"No, it's not going to happen to us," Rockets coach Rick Adelman countered. "I can't see it happen. There's too many games and it's pretty well spread out. I don't think you'll ever see that."
Would there be an outcry if a division winner wasn't in the top eight?
"I would love it, let me tell you this right now," Detroit Pistons coach John Kuester said. "All teams' goals is to get to the playoffs. It doesn't matter how. And when it starts there, everybody has different circumstances on why they get there and then it becomes a situation where it's what are you going to do with that opportunity?"
Luckily that NBA hasn't had a team with worse than the eighth-best conference record win a division since splitting into six divisions. Denver came close in 2006, going 44-38 to tie Sacramento for the seventh-best record in the West. The Nuggets were awarded the third seed, as the rules were then, as the division winner with the third-best record. (The rule was changed to current top-four format the following season.)
The NBA is well aware of what happened with the NFL's Seahawks and considered such a scenario before adopting the six-division format. They just didn't believe the chances of a similar situation happening were great enough to warrant a special rule.
"Of course, we're aware it's a possibility, but we do believe there should be a benefit to winning your division," league spokesman Tim Frank said. "Although we do not believe it should go as far as homecourt unless you have a better record than your opponent."
Denver coach George Karl said the present NBA system works just fine, using the Seahawks as an example.
"If you keep you making exceptions to the rule you're going to drive everybody crazy," he said. "It doesn't look right or feel right, but next year it will be gone. I don't think anybody's worried about Seattle winning the championship. It's once in 60 years. We're going to make rules to accommodate once in 60 years?
"I think we need to live with the rules we have. If you want to score more points play with a smaller ball. It would go in more often."
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There's still the dilemma of a division champ being guaranteed no worse than the fourth seed regardless of where its record falls. The league wanted a division title to come with some benefit. Some have argued that benefit should only be hanging a division championship banner. Or perhaps just guaranteeing a playoff spot would be sufficient, leaving the playoff seeding to be determined by records.
"They should get in the playoffs, I guess, but [seeding] should be the teams with the best record," Adelman said. "That's what it's all about, earning homecourt advantage. If you've earned one of the top four records, you should have that homecourt advantage."
Nuggets guard J.R. Smith agreed: "It should be by the record, I don't think the division should matter. It should go by what you've been doing all season. It's better to seed them 1-8. I don't really like the division thing. I'd rather go 1-8."
NBA teams don't play as unbalanced a schedule as their counterparts in the NFL and Major League baseball. NFL teams play 37.5 percent of their games within their division, while MLB teams play between 32-49 percent depending on their division.
NBA teams in each conference play roughly the same schedule. Each team plays its four division foe four times for 16 total games or 19.5 percent of its schedule. Of the remaining 10 conference teams, six show up on the schedule four times and the other four make three appearances. The 15 teams in the other conference are played twice.
If a Seahawks-like case occurred in the NBA, where the division champ's record wouldn't earn a playoff spot on its own, it would only knock one deserving team at most out of the playoffs. While that seems to be a small price to pay, considering it would be the eighth-place team, the team left out wouldn't necessarily be of the 37-45 variety.
Take last year in the Western Conference when Oklahoma City snagged the last playoff seed at 50-32. Would it be fair if a 44-38 division champ pushed the Thunder into the lottery? Who said sports are fair? Again, more power to the Seahawks.
"That's just the way it is," interim Charlotte coach Paul Silas said. "[The Seahawks] were in a conference that's not that great and so far so are we. I'm kind of happy about it, really. If we were over in the West, we wouldn't even be thinking about the playoffs, but here we are a game or two out of the playoffs with a lousy record, really. I like where we are."
Utah Jazz forward C.J. Miles, however, isn't as eager to see a Seahawks situation in his league.
"If it bumped us down, of course I'd be mad," he said. "If they win the Super Bowl, everybody's going to be mad. That will be a problem. One game you never know. I'm not saying it's going to happen. Them making the playoffs may be all the confidence they need to upset some people. They're basically playing with nothing to lose. They aren't supposed to be there anyway."
Most of the players and coaches surveyed, however, didn't have an issue with Seattle making the NFL playoffs. As they said, rules are rules. And just being in the playoffs isn't necessarily the end-all, it's doing something when you're there.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan pointed out that the 1978 Washington Bullets won the NBA title despite going just 44-38 during the regular season. What mattered most was how the Bullets played in their four playoff series.
"This is what you see and people don't understand it," Sloan said. "You have a team that has injuries, those injuries plagued you all year long and then they start to come together. They work to get together for the playoffs.
"You play a team that's starting to get all their players back. Maybe they were better to begin with and you play as hard as you can all year long, but you can't do anything about it, so you have to match-up with what's there. I don't have a problem with it, whatsoever."
The NBA has been fortunate that since 2005 most division winners have been quality teams with 50 or more wins. But really that's just blind luck. There's no mathematical or competitive reason keeping one division from having five of the worst seven records in its conference.
And until that happens, perhaps there's no compelling reason to change the current system. Go Seahawks.
* Research courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau
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