by John Hollinger (yes, I know, I can't believe I'm "quoting" him either... I can't stand the man's love of math but... what'm I gonna do about it?)
David Stern basically shot down the idea of retooling the playoffs during his "State of the Union" address at the All-Star Game, but humor me for a minute. One thing I'll be watching closely the next few weeks is the disparity between the West's No. 9 team and the East's No. 8.
Presently, we're looking at a situation in which a Western team might be in the lottery with 48 wins, while an Eastern club with 34 wins makes the playoffs. Call me crazy, but if you win 14 more games than another team, they shouldn't be the ones getting to the postseason.
A less discussed side effect of this is how it plays with the draft. Our theoretical 34-win team will pick after the 48-win team; in fact, the 48-win team has a chance (albeit a tiny one) of picking first. It's odd to think that making the playoffs in the East will cost a team four spots in the draft (11th to 15th); while missing it in the West could possibly move a team down six (20th to 14th).
Of course, all this rigmarole would be unnecessary if the league would just take the top 16 teams into the postseason, or something approaching that.
My last proposal on this topic addressed the strength in the West from the perspective of improving the Finals, but didn't look at our new situation in which a couple of very bad Eastern Conference teams will make the playoffs while at least two pretty good Western Conference squads stay home.
So let's try again. I had proposed cross-matching the top seeds in each conference, preserving the 1-through-8 structure but using a 2-3-2 format and playing East vs. West in the first round.
That has to be augmented by something else, however -- selecting the correct 16 teams in the first place.
To do that, it's pretty easy -- just have the teams with the best 16 records make the playoffs. In case of a tie, the first tie-break should be the conference with the least representation (i.e., if two teams tie for the 16th spot, whichever conference had fewer of the other 15 teams would earn the berth). That gets us as close to an 8-8 mix as possible in most years, and means this system only rears its head when there is a disparity in win-loss record.
Additionally, the league can continue its fetish with rewarding division winners by giving six of the top eight seeds to division champs. This has an added bonus, for you TV execs in the audience, because it guarantees at least two first-round series in the Mountain or Pacific time zones (well, unless the Timberwolves win the Northwest Division ... but fortunately, we needn't consider that possibility).
Seeding teams 1 through 16 would produce some huge geographic imbalances, but those can be addressed partially by allowing the top eight seeds' opponent to shift one spot up or down to produce matchups from the same conference.
What you end up with, if the season ended today, looks like this:
(1) Boston vs. (16) Washington
(8) Orlando* vs. (9) Phoenix
(4) San Antonio vs. (13) Toronto
(5) New Orleans vs. (12) Golden State
(2) Detroit vs. (14) Cleveland**
(7) Utah* vs. (10) Houston
(3) L.A. Lakers vs. (15) Portland**
(6) Dallas vs. (11) Denver
* - seeding moves up as division champ ** - pairing shifted to create conference match-up
I think we can all agree this would be vastly more compelling than what's actually on offer; in addition, it would let teams like Portland and Sacramento keep pushing for a playoff spot and put some actual pressure on clubs like Washington to win a game once in a while.
There are drawbacks. Every round would have to use the 2-3-2 format or the travel will quickly get ridiculous for series like Orlando-Phoenix. Additionally, TV people won't like this because it potentially could give them some troublesome second-round pairings if several teams from the Eastern time zone make the second round -- with 13 of the league's 30 teams there, this is certainly a real possibility down the road (given the state of the East, way down the road).
In my humble opinion, what this format adds to the other rounds of the playoffs more than offsets what might be lost in the second round. Not to mention what it does for the regular season. The current system's credibility will take a huge hit if 48 wins gets one team in the lottery and 34 puts another in the playoffs.