After watching the Lakers beat the Mavericks in overtime Sunday afternoon, where Dirk and Kobe went crazy in the 4th quarter in by far the best game of the NBA season, it got me thinking about the parallels between this year’s Western Conference race and the best basketball there is, NCAA March Madness.
Traditionally basketball fans don’t associate March Madness with the NBA and rightfully so. Usually the top seeds are secure; jockeying for playoff position is at a minimum and is weighted towards the bottom with teams clawing and scratching for the 8th and final spot. Maybe the biggest reason for the lax and less entertaining end-of-the-season results is teams resting starters and mildly injured players in preparation for a healthy and energized championship run.
This year the depth, parity, high-profile trades and overall strength in the West provides for the most intriguing and significant final quarter of the NBA season in recent memory. This uncharacteristic turn of events gives both die-hard and casual basketball fans an added bonus to the traditional March Madness of college basketball.
NBA Western Conference March Madness
- With so many significant trades, teams need to play their first units to get the new players up-to-speed, get used to the changes, adjust and fine-tune strategies going into the playoffs.
- All 8 Western conference playoff teams are on pace for 50 wins, and Denver, the 9th seed, is on pace for nearly 49. That will be the most since the NBA went to 16 teams in the playoffs (see chart to the right). When you factor in the top 3 teams in the East the 2007-2008 season overall will have the most 50-win teams during the 16-team playoff era, which is 23 years.
- Home court becomes significantly more important when teams are this evenly matched. Only 5.5 games separate the #1 seed from the 8th, and unbelievably there is only a 6.5-game difference between the top spot and not even making the playoffs, being in the 9th spot. That is even more mind-boggling historically (see chart to the right).
What all that means is the likelihood and number of ultra-competitive close games will be drastically increased down the stretch. Case in point: Lakers vs. Mavs OT game where you saw great team basketball and the best-of-the-best individual performances. This is exactly what typifies NCAA March Madness and where the analogy proves true. As a basketball fan I can’t ask for much more than what’s in store for March 2008.
Denver (who as I type just ran around, over and through Phoenix, the 6th seed, by 13) may unfortunately not make the playoffs with 48-49 wins, while their record would be good enough for a 4th seed and home court in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. That is just ridiculous. The supremacy in the West has taken, in my opinion, the most important aspect out of the NBA Finals – unpredictability. Without question that is the main reason LeBron James, probably the most recognizable NBA player right now, playing against the best team in basketball and arguably the best power forward EVER in Tim Duncan produced the lowest TV ratings in NBA Finals history! That’s just sad.
Seven of the last nine NBA champions have been from the West. And I think it’s safe to assume during that 9-year stretch only three Finals had the unpredictability factor – 2004, 2005 and 2006 with Detroit dominating the Lakers in ’04 being a monumentally unexpected turn of events.
That dominance has brought up a plethora of new and interesting ideas to change the current playoff structure. They range from minor tweaks to wholesale changes like eliminating conference designations and having the top 16 teams in the entire league get in the playoffs.
I agree with this line of thinking – to a degree.
In 2006 the league changed the seeding format so the top 2 teams in each conference couldn’t meet until the conference finals, avoiding another premature match-up among top teams like what happened with the Spurs/Mavs in ’05-’06. That was a good step. The West’s massacre of the East over the last 9 years coupled with decreased viewership of the NBA Finals makes it apparent that another step may be in order.
Let me express two quick points about this before I share the best idea I’ve heard:
- I am not about change just for the sake of change
- Changing the playoff structure is not, let me repeat not, simply because the West has dominated of late. Western Conference superiority is nothing more than a current trend that will eventually correct itself naturally through the draft, free agency and retirements. Basic ebb and flow. The point is to increase overall competitiveness, excitement and, most importantly, that unpredictability factor especially during the lopsided seasons.
John Hollinger wrote a very interesting article (ESPN Insider restricted) last year during the dreadful Spurs/Cavs bore fest about just that – tweaking the NBA playoff structure. For the many of you who aren’t as relationship-threatening obsessed with sports like I am and don’t have ESPN Insider, here is the gist of the proposal:
“[The NBA] should play West versus East in the first round, not the last.”
The regular season would play out just as it does now. Then the league would seed the teams 1 to 8 in each conference, just as it does now.
Then it changes — the two conferences would cross-match in the playoffs, so every series is set up to be East versus West. Of course, in those cases when the lower-seeded West team is able to eliminate the higher-seeded East team, then we would have West versus West, which means this system would be working exactly as intended: We would have the stronger teams meeting in the later rounds, regardless of conference. – John Hollinger, ESPN insider
Essentially this idea is creating a tournament-style bracket for the entire league. Although this proposal completely shatters my Sixers upset dreams, it would bring Kobe to Philly for the first round, as you’ll see below, and has the added benefit of a much more interesting and worth-watching playoffs, from start to finish, making up for my Sixers disappointment – a little.
2008 Bracket Under This Proposal (as of 3/6/08)
(1E) Boston vs. (8W) Golden State
(4W) Utah vs. (5E) Toronto
(2W) Los Angeles vs. (7E) Philadelphia
(3E) Orlando vs. (6W) Phoenix
(1W) San Antonio vs. (8E) New Jersey
(4E) Cleveland vs. (5W) Houston
(2E) Detroit vs. (7W) Dallas
(3W) New Orleans vs. (6E) Washington
How is that not a much better playoff picture? The “East” and “West” finals would potentially be Boston vs. LA and SA vs. Detroit. Aren’t those the best teams in the NBA right now? One way or another, the two best teams will survive and play for the championship. Who cares about conferences when it comes to the Finals? It’s about being the best team in the entire league, and I don’t think the players or coaches would have much of a problem with that. In fact some have already expressed their approval with simply having the 16 best teams make the playoffs when posed that question by reporters.
The major problem with this plan is travel and TV scheduling. To me those issues are just minor and insignificant details considering the big picture. The NBA is a for-profit business. And if viewership and ratings continue to decrease because of weak entertainment value (unpredictability factor) adopting a proposal like this would be a smart business decision from a league executive perspective. Better product for the customer = more $$ for the NBA.
Most importantly, this system would be just as effective in times when the conferences aren’t as uneven as they have been in recent years. That thought supports my earlier point that a new playoff structure shouldn’t be just about fixing East or West dominance. Rather, create the most competitive playoffs possible regardless of conference lopsidedness.
Make sense? Good idea – bad idea? Either way lets get ready for some amazing NBA basketball.