How to fix conference inequity


Nash the ball passed every which way up, over and around the Pistons. (AP/Duane Burleson)

How great would it be if the Suns and Pistons decided who earned a playoff spot on the court? (AP/Duane Burleson)

In his Wednesday Q and A column on all things NBA Playoffs, Bill Simmons touched on the point I brought up earlier in the week concerning how ridiculous it is that the Pistons reached the playoffs while a “legitimate playoff team” in the Suns sat at home.

He brought up a couple of ideas he has previously proposed that would make sure this never happens again.

The plan starts off by guaranteeing playoff berths to the top six teams in each conference and then gives spots to the next two best teams regardless of conference. That would have been Dallas and Utah, not the Suns, this season.

This is where it gets crazy. Then Simmons proposes a 16-team “Entertaining-As-Hell Tournament” with all the non-playoff teams.

OK, so the NBA would NEVER go for something like that, but it’s fun to talk about for a minute or two.

This would give the NBA a college basketball-type feel in that a college team can lose all its regular season games and then win four conference tournament games and six NCAA tourney games and be crowned as national champs. Theoretically at least.

The same thing could happen if a terrible team, like say Washington, is garbage all year and then gets a Gilbert Arenas back and goes on a run.

But how great would that be? The competition in that tournament would have an NCAA Tournament vibe, would be great for fans of all losing teams and likely would not result in much of a playoff-altering payoff because this year those two squads would be facing the Cavs and the Lakers.

It would at least give a team like the 2008-09 Suns a chance to do what they’ve done all year – which is beat bad teams – to earn a playoff spot they deservedly should get. And hey, if that happened this year they’d have home-court advantage throughout this win-or-go-home pre-playoff.

If the Suns were to lose, then you can say they didn’t deserve it anyway and nobody can complain about their gaudy record for a lottery team; if they win then they’d be getting that first-round matchup with the Lakers we all wanted so badly with a full head of steam heading toward the tilt.

This plan also (obviously) involves dissolving the conference playoff system, and the purist in me at first resists this.

I complain about travel, but Simmons combats that issue by saying series should be in the 2-3-2 format, and if baseball does that then there’s no reason the NBA could not as well.

Then there’s the issue of the unbalanced schedule, as obviously if you’re all fighting for the same playoff spots then every team should play every team a similar amount of times as opposed to the East-West split.

This would essentially make conference affiliation meaningless, aside from the six automatic berths and the fact the top seed in each conference gets a top-two seed under the Simmons plan.

However, it would be the fairest way to solve the NBA’s current imbalance problem, and it is a big issue.

For once we have three strong teams in the East, but for seemingly the last decade since MJ retired the Western Conference Finals (if not Semifinals) has been the true championship round.

That shouldn’t happen.

This year we would have semifinals of Cleveland and Orlando and the ever dramatic Boston-Lakers tilt if chalk holds. Last year it would have been Boston-New Orleans and Lakers-Pistons and the year before Mavs-Spurs and Suns-Pistons, meaning the Suns wouldn’t have faced Dallas or San Antonio before the Finals instead of needing to beat both just to reach the Finals.

As great as it would be for the fans of losing teams and basketball in general if the Cinderella feel of the NCAA Tournament were brought to the rigid NBA Playoffs, we know the “Entertaining-As-Hell Tournament” will never become an “Entertaining-As-Hell Reality.”

Although I would favor such a college-style system, my plan would give the top four seeds in each conference an automatic bid and then go with the next best eight teams regardless of conference. I would then seed everybody by record and let them duke it out.

The 2-3-2 format would minimize travel costs, and if everybody would just forget about conference tradition they would realize this is the most sensible way to seed the playoffs.

You won’t see teams that win seven more games than a playoff team sitting at home and you won’t see Finals’ like Spurs-Cavs a few years back, you’ll see the actual best teams playing in the actual Finals.

But this won’t happen because it’s too simple and makes too much sense, and it’s a problem that’s certainly not exclusive to the NBA.

Leagues would rather have an 8-8 Chargers team play at home and beat a 12-4 Colts team while an 11-5 Patriots squad sits at home just because they happened to play in a putrid division or let a .500 Dodgers team acquire one Manny to push them over an even more mediocre D-backs squad while four teams with better records sit at home, only to see Los Angeles take out the NL’s best team.

And those are just the latest examples because this stuff happens every year.

What will it take for leagues to finally value fairness over tradition?