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  • Bob Fitzgerald just finished his 10th season as television play-by-play announcer for the Warriors. Throughout the 2006-07 season, Fitzgerald again provided Warriors fans with a unique, inside perspective to the club and the NBA. Check out his blog only on warriors.com!

    June 1, 2007

    Should the NBA adopt Bob Fitzgerald's proposed reallignment, division rivals like the Warriors and Lakers would square off five times a year. (photo: Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty)

    As a broadcaster, I have the opportunity to express my opinion in a variety of ways - on TV, on the radio, in my blog, etc. That being said, the following column is purely one broadcaster's humble opinion on improving the conference setup and NBA Playoff system.

    The beauty of the NBA is that it is unafraid of change. It is a league at the forefront of many of the best things in professional sports – diversity, globalization, charity, teamwork, marketing and technology.

    It is a league that evaluates scenarios, studies and usually changes for the better. It moved the three-point line in, saw that was a mistake and changed it back. The league allowed the zone defense and produced a better product. The league experimented with a new composite ball and then returned to leather. The introduction of an age minimum, I believe, was a step forward for more polished players (i.e. Brandon Roy) coming into the league. To fill the gap for players who may not be best suited for college, the Developmental League is a good option that only improves every year.

    Unfortunately, the one major gap in this tremendous sport of professional basketball is in defining its champion. The odd conference setup and scheduling is outdated and inequitable. When the sport is supposed to be at its zenith in terms of interest, intensity and quality of play, the NBA shoots an airball more often than not.

    Now, this is not only an NBA problem. Sports like college football have had questionable methods of determining champions for years. The problem arises primarily from failing to match up the quality teams in an effort to ultimately decide which team is best. The history of college football is littered with teams that feasted on lesser competition, built up a bloated won-loss record and laughably were “voted” a top team – a “mythical” national champion indeed.

    Fortunately, the NBA has a regular season that could easily determine the quality of a ballclub. Once the various team strengths are ascertained, a championship tournament could be easily implemented. And surprisingly, the methodology doesn’t have to be so shockingly different.

    There are two incredibly unfortunate aspects of the regular season in the NBA. One is that the visiting team loses 60 percent of all regular season games. This is the biggest disparity in any of the four major sports. The other is that the Western Conference has become so dominant that any type of playoff system that doesn’t acknowledge this truism is flawed.

    Now, one look at an NBA team’s schedule gives you a good idea why road teams rarely win. Tons of travel, back-to-back games, and four games in five nights in multiple time zones all take its toll on the traveling team’s play. Having broadcast NBA games for 14 years, I can tell you that I am physically beaten up on these trips, and I am only required to speak to perform my job.

    Players endure physical hardship and injury during a season (more than 300 players have missed a total of 4,400 games each of the past two seasons) and this is despite being some of the best conditioned athletes in the world. Having players perform at less than their best is not good for fans, the quality of play, games being broadcast and competition in general.

    All of this can be addressed by adjusting the “conference” setup in the NBA. This has happened in the league’s history several times and teams like Chicago were once even in the Western Conference.

    Fortunately, the NBA's current regionally-based six-division setup would still work. However, rather than having the six divisions placed within two conferences, it would make more sense to have them broken into three conferences - West, Central and East. To view how the league's two conferences are currently set up, click here. To see how my proposed three-conference setup would look like, view the table below:

    Now, the hypothetical team schedule (let’s use the Warriors) is slightly different but much better for travel, television broadcasts, fans attending road games and development of regular season rivalries.

    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.

    Now for the Western Conference opponents, which would require much less travel, far fewer time zone issues and much closer geographic proximity. Again, using the Warriors schedule, play the non-division teams in the conference (the Mountain Division) four times each (20 games) and play the four division opponents (the Pacific) five times each (20 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).

    The change to three conferences and adjustment of the schedule is quite easy. Even in the event that economics dictated staying with an 82-game schedule, just rotate one non-conference (home and away) opponent randomly on a yearly basis.

    So now for the post-season championship tournament, or playoffs. Much of the current format still works very well. Seven-game series truly decide the best teams and 16 playoff qualifiers is exactly the right number. Seeding teams is absolutely necessary. Using regular season records for seeding and home court is appropriate. And charter air travel has made frequency of games much easier. I would also suggest the 2-3-2 format currently used for the Finals to be in place for all series. This minimizes travel.

    However, the Eastern/ Western Conference format, selecting eight teams from each conference just absolutely fails in identifying the best 16 teams in the NBA. Over the past eight years, the Western record vs. Eastern teams is as follows:

    West Record Vs. East

    That totals for a 1,999-1,451 record for the Western Conference, a .579 winning percentage. Additionally, the Western Champion has won the NBA Championship 7 of the past 9 years, with many of the series not very competitive. This is not a cycle or a trend that is going to change any time soon (particularly with this year’s lottery results). During the 2006-07 regular season, five of the best six records in the NBA belonged to the West. The entire starting five of the First Team All-NBA were all Western Conference players. At the All-Star Break, the five best records in the league were in the West. This had NEVER happened in NBA history. In fact, no conference had ever had the top four records in the league at the All-Star Break.

    This is all despite the fact that Eastern teams play 52 games against lesser competition and only 30 games against the West. While I don’t advocate relying on computer rankings, the Sagarin rankings (using won-loss record and strength of schedule) essentially show that 10 of the top 16 teams in the NBA are from the Western Conference. With Miami and Detroit aging, the Eastern Conference is heading for an even larger decline and it's likely that 12 of the best 16 teams in the league reside out West.

    The point is not to eliminate Eastern teams from the playoffs, but rather identify the best 16 teams in the league and seed them accordingly in a 16-team bracket to best determine the true NBA champion. The current format is the equivalent of Western teams being required to run a marathon while teams from the East are running a 100-yard dash to win a title.

    Understand, there will never and should never be a balanced schedule. There will be year-to-year vagaries in the three-conference setup and certainly divisional strength issues. But a 16-team playoff bracket is a vast improvement over the current system and would be the most equitable way to select and seed post-season qualifiers. Remember, the goal is to have the best teams playing for the NBA title and an equitable seeding process.

    Start with all six division winners making the playoffs. And then the next 10 best regular season records, regardless of location. Seed the teams 1-16 based on regular season records, make out an NBA Championship bracket, play seven-game series and use the 2-3-2 format to mitigate travel concerns.

    Using this year’s regular season records, nine teams out of the current West would have qualified and seven from the East (almost eight and eight) but it’s the seedings and road to a title that would have looked dramatically different:

    Feel free to prognosticate on how the Championship Tournament would have played out. But to get to the Finals this year, San Antonio has beaten Denver (10), Phoenix (2) and Utah (6), a far different road than Cleveland [Washington (15), New Jersey (14) and Detroit (4)]. In fact, with a properly seeded playoff bracket, we might still have seen the great Dallas/Warrior and San Antonio/Phoenix series but they would have been in the Final Four rather than in the first and second round. You could quite reasonably surmise that Cleveland might have lost in the first round to Denver or certainly in the second round to Phoenix, instead of being swept in the Finals of a playoff system that is in serious need of an evaluation.

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