If the following rant comes across as sour grapes to you, that’s probably because you’re right.
If the Phoenix Suns weren’t the team getting the short end, I would be too busy worrying about their playoff run to really care (like last year, as short-lived as it was).
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to an argument that questions why a Phoenix team that finished the year 10 games above .500 at 46-36 has spent the week watching the playoffs while a 39-43 Detroit team that the Suns beat twice got throttled in a four-game series by Cleveland.
And it wasn’t even that close.
A playoff-worthy Western Conference team has now gotten screwed over in favor of a bad Eastern Conference team two years in a row, and last year it was even worse.
That’s when the 48-34 Golden State Warriors became the best team to ever miss the playoffs since the NBA expanded to a 16-team format in 1983-84 because they played in a conference that saw the eighth-seeded Nuggets win 50 games.
Last year’s Warriors were six games better than the vaunted 2006-07 eighth-seeded Warriors that upset top-seeded Dallas, but they didn’t even get a chance to make any noise. They are also the only regular-season team better than this year’s Suns to miss the playoffs.
Those Warriors would have held home-court advantage in the first round of an Eastern Conference that saw the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks reach the playoffs despite being 11 games worse than Golden State. The Hawks would have held the 12th spot in last year’s West, which thus would have given the Suns a lottery pick from the Joe Johnson trade after all.
If this year’s Suns played east of the Mississippi, they would be facing the Hawks as the No. 5 seed in a conference that saw only five Eastern teams finish with records better than .500.
David Stern would tell me to settle down, these things are cyclical and we just happen to be living in a time that has seen nine really good teams reside in the West two years running.
This year in particular saw only one real contender in the Lakers and then eight pretty good teams in the West that all battled inconsistency at times, with the Suns just happening to do so the most.
The East, on the other hand, featured three championship contenders at least before Kevin Garnett and Jameer Nelson got hurt and then a host of mediocre teams that except for the ghastly Wizards are better than all the bad teams in the West.
The fourth-seeded Hawks would have joined the Suns on the outside looking in if they were a West team, finishing between Utah and Phoenix, but the East would have fit its Nos. 5-14 teams behind the Suns and the Warriors in the West standings.
That probably won’t happen for another 100 years, but it has been four years running that a sub-.500 East team has reached postseason play. The West has not placed a sub-.500 team in the playoffs since 1996-97, when Jordan ruled the Earth and the Wolves, Suns and Clippers all made it with losing records, kind of like a modern-day Eastern Conference.
In the name of fairness and because the West has been the overall better conference since Jordan retired, the NBA would have to do away with conference affiliations and make the NBA Playoffs a 16-team free-for-all seeded by record for the 16 most-deserving teams to make the playoffs, a concept that should not be so difficult to make a reality as it is.
The NBA would also have to alter its unbalanced schedule – which this year means the Suns had to play more of the tough West teams than mediocre East squads, but they also got to fill up on the conference’s numerous patsies – and who knows how all that would have affected their final record.
With seven-game series’ in every round with the 2-2-1-1-1 format until the Finals, this would be brutal for travel, as teams could have to journey across the country in many opening series’ like they do in baseball.
And I can tell you when I covered the Dodgers last year, reporters from both Los Angeles and Philadelphia were rejoicing when the Phils ended the Dodgers in five games just because that saved them a trip back to the City of Brotherly Love and an ensuing cross country workout to cover the very next day.
It would be a logistical nightmare, and you wouldn’t get those series’ where an up-and-coming team keeps getting knocked out by a veteran contender before finally turning the table as seems to happen so often in this sport from Jordan against the Piston to LeBron against the Pistons and everything in between.
But at least the NBA Finals would never again take place in the West Semis like it did in 2007 with Suns-Spurs.
If this system were in place this season, the Suns would be playing the Magic in a cross-country 4-13 seed showdown.
Think of all the storylines, with Superman v. Superman, Shaq v. Van Gundy, Shaq returning to the place it all began and Grant Hill coming back to the city where he spent six injury-plagued seasons with a cap-hogging contract only to play all 82 for Phoenix this season for under $2 million after spurning Orlando two summers ago.
I’m already excited about it even though I know it’s pure fiction.
In the second round the Suns would face the Nuggets, but only if they could stave off the popular 5-12 upset against the Hawks.
The Suns split with the Magic, took two of three from Denver (while coming a bad call away from a sweep) and swept the Hawks, who would make for a mighty interesting series with Joe Johnson leading his club into Phoenix. Who would have thought the Suns reaching the “conference” finals could be so simple this season?
But alas, MLB has the NL West, the NFL has the NFC West and the NBA has the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
Conference tradition and logistics are more important than getting the best teams in the playoffs and seeded in the correct manner, so teams like the 2008-09 Suns will always get punished for their conference affiliation.