Among the more amusing responses to the dizzying flurry of trades in the NBA over the past two weeks was the nearly deafening call for the league to overhaul its playoff format to accommodate the plethora of strong teams in the West. The West was already best, the analysts say, and with the trade-deadline moves that brought help for the conference’s already elite teams, the balance of power is now so lopsided that the league must change the way playoff teams are selected.
Under the current system, the critics charge, there could well be a 50-win Western Conference team that is shut out of the postseasoncompletely, while one or two Eastern teams could make the playoffs with sub-.500 records. This is a travesty, we’re told, that the league cannot allow to happen.
Look, it’s no secret that the top teams in the West are currently blessed with an embarrassment of riches. The presence of Pau Gasol alongside Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum in Los Angeles may indeed transform the Lakers into the best team in the conference. Or Jason Kidd just might provide Dirk Nowitzki and the often- rudderless Dallas Mavericks with the leader they’ve needed to steer all that talent to a title. Or maybe it’s Shaquille O’Neal’s presence in Phoenix, providing Steve Nash with yet another inside target to go along with Amare Stoudemire, that will finally bring Suns fans the championship they’ve been dreaming of since Michael Jordan denied Charles Barkley his ring in the 1993 NBA Finals.
Or maybe (gasp!) none of them are as good as the best teams in the East.
While it’s true that the West currently has nine teams with winning percentages of .600 or better, it might surprise you to learn that the only two clubs winning games at a .700 clip are from the East.
Already, fans and analysts seem to have forgotten that it was the Boston Celtics who made the real blockbuster trade — the one that took Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen from the Western Conference and lined them up alongside All-Star Paul Pierce to give the Celtics the most potent lineup in basketball. Boston’s .774 winning percentage is by far the best in the league, and the Detroit Pistons are next at .732.
Western fans will be quick to point out that Boston’s and Detroit’s success has more to do with the weakness of their conference than with the talent on their teams, and they might have a point. Except for the fact that both Eastern powers have dominated the West. The Celtics are 16-3 against Western clubs to date and the Pistons stand at13-7.
Also, if fans in the West are ready to dismiss the defending Eastern Conference champions due to the Finals sweep in June, they would do so at their own peril. LeBron James is the most dominating player in the game today, and he may finally have the pieces to his own championship puzzle.
Four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace was a bust in Chicago, but when he’s surrounded by talent, as he was in Detroit, he’s a monster in the middle — which is just what the Cleveland Cavaliers would need if they made it back to meet Tim Duncan, O’Neal, Bynum or any of the Western behemoths in the Finals. Add the desperately needed outside range of Wally Szczerbiak to open the floor for James, and the Cavs, who are 14-12 against the West, despite numerous injuries, might have what it takes to win it all.
Warriors fans won’t want to hear this, since the W’s are currently tied for the eighth seed with the Denver Nuggets, and therefore in danger of missing the playoffs in the deeper West,, but the system is just fine the way it is. If every team’s goal is to win the championship, they have to beat the best that both conferences have to offer to claim the crown, so it really shouldn’t matter which conference they start out in, anyway.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.