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Friday, April 14, 2006

NBA East's contenders beaten before playoffs even start

It's always nice to chase one of Alice's wide-ranging tours of contemporary literature with a mindless look at grown men payed obscene amounts of money to play a children's game.

In that spirit, take a look at the NBA playoff probable matchups. I'm stunned: out of the 15 teams in the East, only four have a winning record. Has the conference of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan sunk so low? A middling Western team like Utah (currently 39-39 and second in their division) is pretty much out of the playoff race in the Western conference. If they were in the East, they could be the fifth seed!

The fact that half the teams who make the Eastern conference playoffs could have a losing record makes basketball fandom a different experience than baseball fandom. In baseball, each year lots of great teams don't make the playoffs--Cleveland and Oakland last year, for example.

In Major League Baseball, only either 29% (American League) or 25% (National League) of the teams make the playoffs; in the NBA, 53% do. (The NFL splits the difference, giving 38% of teams a playoff shot.) The two leagues in baseball seldom play each other during the regular season, so there isn't much opportunity for one league to boast higher average numbers of wins than the other; not so in basketball, where the matchups are more or less evenly spread. That's why the NBA West teams can have such better records than their East counterparts.

One result of the low number of playoff spots in baseball is that the division crown is a hugely important prize. Last year, San Diego won the Western NL division with an 82-80 record; five MLB teams who didn't make the playoffs at all had records that would have made them division champs--and playoff participants--if they were only in San Diego's division. Pity the poor Blue Jays, Orioles and Tampa Bay ("Devil Rays" is just stupid), who chase the Red Sox and Yankees every year for the division title.

In the NFL, of course, the real prize is having one of the top two records in your league, be it the NFC or AFC. This gets you a "bye", meaning you don't have to play in the first round of the playoffs at all. That's a big deal when you consider how wearing every football game is for players, and that any one game can go either way (as opposed to the series format of baseball and basketball playoffs, which favors the better team). Mark Cuban, flamboyant owner of the Dallas Mavericks, suggested last winter that the NFL increase the number of teams in the playoffs in each league from the current six to seven--and take away the second-place team's bye, thereby adding a playoff series and making the league winning record crown a more outstanding prize.

Maybe a similar format could work for baseball: add a second wildcard team to the playoffs (for a total of five playoff teams in each of the two leagues), and give each league's top team a first-round bye. And while I'm playing God, why not reduce the NBA playoffs to seven teams for each conference, and give each #1 team a bye? Then we'd have an MLB playoff admissions rate of 36%/31% and a more civilized NBA rate of 47%--plus the added excitement of the top-slot race at the end of each season.

Of course, that would mean that not every Sox-Yankees game of the regular season would be quite such a life-and-death battle.

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Blogger Alice on Sat Apr 15, 02:00:00 PM:
They don't call it the Leastern Conference for nothing.

My dream job is to be a sports statistician. I'm terrible at math, however, and thus I'm resigned to sit on the sidelines of the sidelines, nodding wistfully as my friends compare their fantasy teams and once in a while correcting Jayson Stark on the use of the term "factoid."