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TripleDipping
03-27-2003, 01:37 PM
East playoffs should be least of our concerns
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com


Here's a suggestion for David Stern and Billy Hunter when they get together (hopefully within the next month) to thrash out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement:

Can we just eliminate the Eastern Conference playoffs? Please?

Honestly, it's worse than it has ever been, and we thought last year was as bad as it could get. If the powers-that-be can't agree to eliminate them, then designate one team to be the sacrificial lamb once again while the real men play out west.

It is a true injustice that one of these teams -- Kings, Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks or Timberwolves -- won't even get out of the first round. And depending on how and when the Lakers show up, it could be two of those teams. Meanwhile, in the play-in game in the East, we are going to again be subjected to watching the Pistons, Nets and God knows who else try mightily to pretend that they are a worthy foe.

The imbalance is bad and keeps getting worse. In the last three NBA Finals, the Eastern Conference team has won a total of three games. In the last four NBA Finals, or since Michael Jordan left Chicago, the Eastern Conference team has won four games. And even the 2000 Finals, which the Lakers won 4-2 over Indiana, wasn't nearly that close because L.A. had a 3-1 lead knowing it was heading home. In addition, Kobe Bryant played only nine minutes in Game 2 (an L.A. win in Los Angeles) and none in Game 3 (a Pacers win at home) due to a sprained ankle. If Kobe is healthy, it goes five games, max.

Last year was a joke. All of us who followed the Kings-Lakers series knew what was coming, even though Celtics coach Jim O'Brien tried to make a case for the Nets by saying that the West winner was in for a "rude awakening" in the Finals. Still waiting on that one. It was simply two versions of basketball on display -- and the difference was as obvious as it was dramatic. At one point during the Finals, Robert Horry was asked if he thought the Kings could have handled the Nets in the same fashion as the Lakers. He said he couldn't imagine it any other way.

It doesn't look any better this year. The Pistons are the winningest team in the East. The Pistons? They've had some nice wins. They also went out west and lost five in a row. They still have a serviceable record against the West (13-11), but they also have home games remaining against the Spurs, Kings and Suns. You could not, in all good conscience, make a case for the Pistons, or anyone else right now, to be anything more than an irritant to whomever emerges from the West.

The top 10 teams in the West and 11 of the first 12 all have winning records against the East, with No. 1 Dallas boasting an impressive 24-4 mark against the jayvees. Memphis, for goodness sakes, has a winning record against the East. The Spurs are 20-6 against the East, somehow managing to lose twice to the Knicks in an otherwise sparkling season. Until the Knicks won recently in San Antonio, the Spurs had not lost at home to an Eastern Conference team all season.

Texas has been a burial ground for the East; the 15 teams in the conference have accounted for all of five wins in the Lone Star State this season. And one of those Texas teams, Houston, may not even make it into the playoffs.

So what to do? It's easy to trash the current system and the consolation bracket Eastern Conference. But, renaissance man that I am, I won't resort to cheap name-calling. I'll offer some not too immodest proposals to get what we all want: a competitive NBA Finals.

The logical choice is to crown two champions, the Eastern Conference champion and the NBA champion. The latter would be whoever prevailed in the West. Phil Jackson would present the Eastern Conference champion with its award, a huge Waterford asterisk. Implicit in this setup is that if three non-playoff teams in one conference still have a winning record against the other conference, then things won't change.

Other, less drastic, options:

Re-seeding. This is really the only fair way to do it, although the travel costs would be ridiculous. So what? This would guarantee that the good teams got rewarded for their work in the regular season. Simply take the top 16 records -- none of this 8/8 stuff -- and seed them. Then go from there. In this case, it might seem unfair to the West because they have to play each other. But under this format, nine teams from the West would make the playoffs. And you'd have Dallas playing Phoenix in the first round. Best series under this format with present records: Lakers-Nets with New Jersey having the home-court advantage.

Re-seeding for the Final Four. This would enable the Eastern Conference to at least pretend it was being competitive. Under this scenario, the top two teams remaining in the last four would play the lower two teams. This would have resulted last year in a Kings-Celtics semifinal and a Lakers-Nets semifinal with a Lakers-Kings final. (Can we assume the Kings would have found a way to handle the Celtics?) There would be no conference champ under this scenario; co-champs would have to be crowned. But you'd be setting the stage for the best possible NBA Finals.

Re-seeding after each round. The NHL tried this once and it is pretty chaotic, especially for scheduling purposes. This merely would start with the aforementioned 16 best teams and then re-seed them after each round. The only downside is that you'd be penalizing a lower seed for pulling an early upset. But you'd be increasing the chances of getting the best teams playing at the end.

The reality, of course, is that nothing is going to change because it's too convenient to leave things the way they are. The defenders of the status quo will tell us that these things are cyclical and that, one day, the East will rise again. That may be true. But in the meantime, we have to endure a playoff system that won't get us the best possible teams playing for the sport's ultimate prize. Instead, we will be subjected to six weeks of basketball featuring point-challenged teams in the East (save Orlando) while the real stuff is going on out west.

That's why Stern and Hunter would be doing us all a favor by simply cashiering the Eastern Conference playoffs and designating a winner by voice vote. Then we can all turn our attention to the real playoffs while still knowing that, even under this format, it's a shame we're not going to see the two best teams in the NBA Finals.

Nash13
03-27-2003, 01:56 PM
East is a joke. If you've noticed, the playoff series that gets the most hype is the Western Conference Finals. Over the past years, it's always been one good east team v. one good west team. Now it's one good west team v. another good west team.