Sunday, May 21, 2006

NBA Playoff Format

So David Stern has seen the error of his ways, and the NBA is going to change the playoff seeding next year. Instead of giving the division winners the top 3 seeds, they will give the division winners and the next best team (call it the top seed wild card) the top 4 seeds, seeding those 4 based on record.

To which I have three responses:
  1. Duh.
  2. What took you so long?
  3. It's better, but it's still not right.
Here we are, in only the second year of this 3 division format, and the reality of the Spurs and Mavs in the second round has forced them to make a change (and don't forget Clips-Grizz back in April). But didn't everyone see this coming, at least the possibility, before a game was ever played 2 season ago?

When the new division alignment was announced, Shaquille O'Neal was still a Laker. Which means that the best team in the Southeast division at the time was the Wizards. Until Kobe chased Shaq out of town, Wizards as 3-seed with a .500 record was a best case scenario.

And then there is the Palace Brawl. Until the Pacers season ended with Ron Artest in the stands and most of their team suspended for most of the year, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference were the Pistons and the Pacers, both in the Central Division. Which means this year's Spurs-Mavs second round matchup would have happened last year with the Pistons and Pacers, if not for a well-thrown cup of beer.

So the 'division winners get the top 3 seeds' idea was immediately bad, always bad, obviously bad, and, well, not good.

The amazing thing to me is the supposed justification. 'We want there to be an additional incentive for division winners.' Umm, OK. Why is that? And, by the way, this is a zero-sum game. You give one team an additional incentive, by definition you are giving another team (or teams) a dis-incentive. Besides, isn't making the playoffs incentive enough? In the last weeks of the season, when Utah was chasing a playoff spot, they seemed to be playing pretty hard. Did they stop playing hard when Denver clinched the division, but they still had a shot at the 8th seed? I don't think so. Besides, if they did, there's a different problem in the league.

This isn't the NFL, where you play teams in your division twice each, and the rest of the league 0 or 1 times. It's not baseball. The NBA's schedule is as balanced within each conference as the math allows it to be. Just seed the teams 1 to 8 based on record.

As for the new format, it's infinitely better than it was, fixing the two biggest problems in the old system (the two best teams in the second round scenario and the 5-6 seed tank scenario). BUT, it's still not right. How many seasons will it be before the THREE best teams come from the same conference? It's going to happen; it's only a matter of time, and maybe not that much time at that. Detroit, Cleveland, Indiana? San Antonio, Dallas, Houston?

So, in the new, improved seeding format, the third best team in the conference could get the 5th seed. Does that make sense? Imagine if you will a situation where the second and third best teams end the season with the same record, and seeding is determined by some arbitrary tie-breaker. The winner of that tie-breaker gets the 2 seed, and the loser gets the 5 seed. Assuming the 5 seed advances to the second round, they would likely play the 1 seed, and aren't we pretty much back where we started? Shouldn't the true 2 play the true 3 in the second round to see which one advances? Isn't that what seeding is about?

I believe it was Mark Twain who said "The most uncommon thing is common sense." Certainly the NBA has proven that time and again.