Friday April 25th, 2008

5. The NBA can't seed a single bracket. Based on the superior number of winning teams in the West, there has been a lot of complaining that the NBA needs to consider reseeding the playoffs without regard to conference. Invite to the postseason tournament the 16 winningest teams across the board and seed them in a single bracket from No. 1 Boston to No. 16 Toronto.

The argument is worthy in the sense that Golden State (48 wins) and Portland (41) from the West would qualify for the playoffs at the expense of losing teams Philadelphia (40) and Atlanta (37), the current Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the East, respectively.

The main problem has to do with regular-season scheduling. Each team currently plays 52 games within its conference and 30 interconference games. If the argument is to make the postseason more fair, then it would be unfair to group all of the entrants into one pot based on different schedules.

If this is about being fair, then the regular-season schedule would need to be weighted evenly so that every team would play an equal number of games against opponents from both conferences. This would ruin any hope of creating divisional or regional rivalries while making the travel more onerous.

If anything needs to be fixed, it isn't the playoffs. The NBA's weakness is the five-and-a-half-month regular season. It's hard enough for fans and players to pay full attention to all 82 games, and anything that decreases interest in the regular season -- such as overhauling the schedule without regard to conference affiliation -- would be an act of self-immolation.

4. The tournament wouldn't necessarily improve. Here are the first-round matchups as it is now:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Boston vs. No. 8 Atlanta No. 2 Detroit vs. No. 7 Philadelphia No. 3 Orlando vs. No. 6 Toronto No. 4 Cleveland vs. No. 5 Washington

Western Conference

No. 1 L.A. Lakers vs. No. 8 Denver No. 2 New Orleans vs. No. 7 Dallas No. 3 San Antonio vs. No. 6 Phoenix No. 4 Utah vs. No. 5 Houston

If the 16 winningest teams were included (despite the wide disparity in their schedules), below is how the first round would line up. (I've arbitrarily granted Portland the tiebreaker over Toronto, two 41-41 teams, based on the Blazers' residence in the superior West.) I've noted whether each series in this format is a better or worse matchup involving the higher-seeded team.

No. 1 Boston vs. No. 16 Toronto ... better No. 2 Detroit vs. No. 15 Portland ... better No. 3 L.A. Lakers vs. No. 14 Washington ... worse No. 4 New Orleans vs. No. 13 Cleveland ... worse No. 5 San Antonio vs. No. 12 Golden State ... worse No. 6 Houston vs. No. 11 Denver ... better No. 7 Phoenix vs. No. 10 Dallas ... worse No. 8 Utah vs. No. 9 Orlando ... worse

Toronto would be a better opponent for the Celtics than Atlanta, Portland would provide a better test for the Pistons than Philadelphia (though the 76ers have created interest in that series), and I would rather see Denver instead of Utah against the Rockets.

But I say the new opponents for the Lakers, Hornets, Spurs, Suns and Jazz would provide worse matchups than those teams are facing today. I would rather see San Antonio vs. Phoenix than either Spurs-Warriors or Suns-Mavericks; likewise, is Orlando-Toronto more competitive than Celtics-Raptors or Jazz-Magic?

3. The NBA playoffs need to be quirky. It is a fact that the NBA puts on the purest postseason tournament of the four major leagues (if the NHL can still claim to be a major league). By that I mean the NBA playoffs run truest to form: The most successful regular-season teams tend to win the title. Eleven of the last 12 NBA champions have been the Nos. 1 or 2 seed within their conference. An NBA championship must be earned during the regular season, whereas lesser wild-card teams win the championships in baseball and football, and postseason upsets in those leagues as well as the NHL happen far more often than in the NBA.

The issue for the NBA is not to make its playoffs more fair, because by current standards it is already the truest test in American team sports. But audiences are not impressed by predictability. They prefer upsets, underdogs and March Madness.

If it were up to me, every NBA series would be best-of-five -- maybe even best-of-three -- which would increase the importance of each game and the unpredictability of each series. But the NBA has gone the other way by increasing the opening round from best-of-five to best-of-seven because teams need the extra cash.

In which case the current format is probably as good as we can hope for. I like the idea of two championship contenders -- the Spurs and Suns -- meeting in the first round, and I like the young Hornets testing themselves against a recent NBA finalist from Dallas that won 67 games last season. The most qualified teams usually advance through the playoffs because that's how the best-of-seven format works in the NBA; in the meantime, the opening round needs to be made as compelling as possible, and at least the system has provided a few good series this year.

2. The lottery is a consolation prize. Of course the Warriors and Blazers would prefer to be in the playoffs, but at least they have a small chance of winning the draft lottery next month and with it a chance to add Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose.

(P.S. Let's hear no talk of how the lottery needs to be changed to prevent bad teams from tanking. No matter how it is adjusted, there will always be bubble teams willing to lose games this year in hopes of improving their roster for the future.)

1. The complaining isn't so bad. It's better to hear from passionate and occasionally enraged fans about the current system than to imagine the "improved'' system that would take its place: a nondescript regular-season schedule, followed by potentially less compelling first-round matchups.

While we're at it, I'm also against reseeding after each round. If a bottom-dweller happens to win by upset, then it shouldn't be penalized by being matched against the next-highest seed. People like underdogs, and the surprise winners should be given a fighting chance to keep playing in a postseason format that is heavily weighted against them already.

4. The Sonics' potential farewell game in Seattle generated much passion ...

c. I am writing not because I have a question but rather a plea of sorts. See, I am currently serving in Iraq and unfortunately cannot be home to help support my beloved Supes. I have been following the story of their sale from here with a very heavy heart and a lot of frustration. While I know this is a business like any other, I believe there is a certain amount of loyalty the team must adhere to when it comes to the city that has been its home for 41 years and vice versa. I place almost all of the blame on the current owners (or carpetbaggers). After reading all of the stories I can find and trying to be objective about this, I am convinced beyond a doubt that Clay Bennett and his cohorts never intended to keep the team in Seattle and succeeded in making it impossible to get a deal for a new arena passed by the local government. I have come to this conclusion by reading the e-mails that the city of Seattle is presenting in its court case against said carpetbaggers as well as the rhetoric passed back and forth between the city and Mr. Bennett's group.

It appears to me that Mr. Bennett clearly violated the good-faith clause that was a condition of his purchase and lied directly to the commissioner about his plans for the team. This, of course, doesn't bode well for the NBA or the commissioner, who doesn't want to risk bad publicity. What astounds me even more is the fact that the commissioner is still backing Mr. Bennett after the e-mails have come out in court documents. Furthermore, the commissioner says he hasn't even examined the e-mails yet he still backs Mr. Bennett.

I am certain the good people of Oklahoma City would embrace the team and welcome the NBA; I just think they are a better candidate for an expansion team. My team has roots and history in Seattle. It is not a failed franchise -- like the Grizzlies were in Vancouver -- and shouldn't be treated like one. As of late, there have been many solutions put on the table and very powerful people have come forward to lend support.

My plea to you is this: For all of us who are fans and cannot be home to support our team, can you please give this as much coverage as possible? When I return home this year, I would like to know that the Sonics are still a part of my community. -- SFC Tracy L. Bessette (I'm male), FOB Warhorse, Iraq

b. I just want to say thank you so much for writing that piece on the Sonics' last home game in KeyArena. It almost brought tears to my eyes, as a longtime Sonics fan, to think that it may be over. It's the terrible truth that if the Sonics move away from Seattle, a new team will never come here. This was OUR team, and even if they bring in an expansion team, or relocate another team (please don't do this to someone else), it will never be the Sonics. It will never have the memories of sitting on the rug in front of the TV watching Gary Payton guard Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals.

The NBA has killed itself in this city, and David Stern has painted himself a most vile villain throughout this entire process. From directly insulting the fans, to being unwilling to even feign impartiality or neutrality in this matter, he has left a taste of brackish water in my mouth that I can't help but choke on. Some small part of me is still hoping that at the last second someone will ride in on the white horse and save our team, but Bennett and his group have built the walls high and the fortifications strong. I'll end my rant here, or else I may get lost in the tangled web of frustration and anger, and forget the sight of an arena full of people chanting at one time, "Save our Sonics!" If this is the end, thank you, Sonics, for the storybook ending. -- Jason Hine, Seattle

a. Come on, man, you may not agree with the Sonics' move to Oklahoma, which is fine, but are you really citing Mark Cuban for analysis on this without even considering or hinting to your readers what his motives are? You realize his team is the closest to our market? Basic journalism, man -- this is not good stuff. -- Kyle, Oklahoma

The reason I quoted Cuban's objections was because they rang true. The fans in Oklahoma will support their new team, but even so this is a bad move in all sorts of ways. The NBA invested 41 years in a market that has grown in that time to become one of our country's great cities, and that sacrifice of Seattle cannot be equal to whatever gains may be realized in Oklahoma City.

I'll repeat my thoughts for whatever they are worth. After talking to a number of people involved in this mess dating back to the previous ownership group of Seattle's own Howard Schultz, I believe that Bennett bought the Sonics with the goal of keeping the team in Seattle. Because Oklahoma City was his hometown, and because some of his minority owners actively wanted the team to move there, Bennett lacked interest in compromising and seeing through the exhaustive political process necessary to keep the team where it belongs. In one sense, I don't think he realized what he was getting himself into. But naivete is no acceptable excuse to the Seattle fans who are losing their team.

From Stern's perspective, I can see that he rationalizes this move as making the best of what became an unwinnable situation for the Sonics in Seattle. For years, the franchise has been unable to negotiate an acceptable lease and arena deal.

But I also believe that a crucial part of the NBA's rationale is that Bennett paid an exorbitant $350 million for the team, which is a big deal to Stern. His business depends on driving up the value of franchises, and if he were to force Bennett to work out a deal to stay in Seattle, then it would create a chilling effect for future team sales. Prospective owners might not be so enthusiastic about spending big for the privilege of joining a league that does not back those owners. Stern had to choose from a series of bad options, and he chose to support his new owner while arguing that a new arena deal might not be available in Seattle under any circumstances.

While the environment in Seattle might be different a decade from now, it's hard to imagine today any kind of public groundswell to import a new team -- and build a new taxpayer-funded arena -- to replace the Sonics. The people in Seattle feel betrayed by the NBA, and that resentment is going to grow as the Sonics reestablish themselves in Oklahoma. Four decades of goodwill will be turned upside down, and this new trend will be hard for the NBA to reverse.

3. This statement in your column about Greg Oden caught my eye, because I have wondered the same thing: "We have to really be careful in his rehab,'' coach Nate McMillan said [of Oden's knee injury that led to microfracture surgery], "because we don't know what happened.'' Isn't it possible that these phenoms are just playing too much basketball at a young age? Maybe they just need some time off from basketball, even if means playing another sport, like athletes did in the old days. -- Michael, Boston

It might be true that overexposure might be a cause of these injuries, though most athletes who reach the NBA have grown up playing an awful lot of basketball whether in the 1950s or the 2000s. And, in the old days, the conditions probably weren't as hospitable as now.

Red Auerbach used to wonder aloud if players were suffering more injuries because the sneakers were growing thicker and heavier. Could it be that players were better off playing in thin-soled Chuck Taylors than in Air Jordans? Celtics vice president and team historian Jeff Twiss, who was a close friend of Auerbach's, recalls two other opinions Red used to have about sneakers.

"He also believed that you need to break in new shoes instead of wearing them brand new in the game,'' Twiss said. "And also that white shoes got dirty too fast.''

Thus the Celtics' tradition of black sneakers ... though I think now we're drifting from the original question.

2. Jason Kidd for All-Defensive first team? Do you even watch games? Kidd routinely gets abused by quick guards like Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo. Furthermore, he had to rebound on a team like the Nets, who have awful big men. Also, have you even seen Keyon Dooling play? What about the aforementioned Paul and Rondo? Both do more on the court with their quick hands and ability to pressure the ball than Kidd could ever do rebounding. -- Tom, Pittsburgh

As I said at the time, it's especially difficult to pick an All-Defensive point guard because the rules changed a few years ago to prevent defenders from touching opponents on the perimeter. Few point guards excel defensively in this new environment.

That's why I deferred to the opinions of a head coach, a league executive and an advance scout. Each of these guys is among the most respected in his field, and two of them named Kidd as the best defensive point guard; the scout rated Kidd slightly behind Utah's Deron Williams as a defender. All three lauded Kidd's size, experience and versatility to defend several kinds of players. All point guards have trouble guarding the quickest ball handlers, but my three experts told me that Kidd generally does a good job of laying off and playing the angles.

1. To win almost 50 games and not make the playoffs is a tough pill to swallow. With that said, what do you see the Warriors doing this offseason to put themselves in playoff position for next season? They have a lot of free-agent decisions to make, and this part of the job hasn't been Chris Mullin's real strength. -- Jayson, San Francisco

Andris Biedrins (making $2.6 million this season), Monta Ellis and Austin Croshere (each making $770,610), Kelenna Azubuike ($687,456), Matt Barnes ($3 million), Mickael Pietrus ($3.5 million) and Patrick O'Bryant ($2.2 million) are among the Warriors who will become free agents.

The key decision will be made by Baron Davis, who can opt out of his contract ($17.8 million for next season) this summer. Davis has been coy about his plans, but based on a conversation we had earlier this season, I have the sense that he might be willing to accept less money next season in exchange for an extended contract providing him with long-term security. It would be a smart move for a physical point guard like Davis, 29, who plays a style that exposes him to injury.

Golden State also needs to keep Ellis and Biedrins. The Warriors are committed to $47.8 million next season (including Davis's guaranteed $17.8 million, but not including any draft picks they may add). Coach Don Nelson says he is going to take a couple of months to decide whether to come back for another year, but that shouldn't affect their long-term planning. The Warriors are committed to an up-tempo style regardless of his decision.

3. Give Tracy McGrady a break. The Rockets were going to be in trouble against Utah after losing center Yao Ming for the season and point guard Rafer Alston for the first two games. Those are the two key positions in basketball, while Yao represents 50 percent of Houston's All-Star cast. Don't blame McGrady for failing to protect home-court advantage against a Jazz team that reached the conference finals last year; credit him instead with leading the Rockets into the playoffs without Yao.

2. Arenas' value to the Wizards. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are two of the league's classiest stars, and after Gilbert Arenas was sidelined in the first half Thursday with knee soreness, they led the Wizards to a Game 3 blowout of the visiting Cavaliers. This is going to lead to theories that Washington would be better without Arenas, and maybe even that the team shouldn't re-sign him if he insists on opting out this summer. Which would be insanity.

No matter what happens in this series, the Wizards absolutely must re-sign Arenas. They can decide to trade him later if the right deal comes up, but no team can afford the loss of so talented a star with nothing in return. That franchise is weaker without Arenas.

1. Suns-Spurs redux. Phoenix isn't dead yet. It may be that the only way for the Suns to ever overcome San Antonio is to make a come-from-behind run as the Red Sox made on the Yankees in 2004. Of course it's a long shot, but a heedless, all-out, panic-driven crusade may be the remedy. In which case they appear to have the Spurs right where they want them.

The Idaho Stampede beat the Austin Toros 90-89 on Thursday to even the Finals at 1-1, with the winner-take-all game set for Friday in Boise.

2. Randy Livingston, Idaho Stampede. The 33-year-old point guard is expected to retire this week, but someday he'll return to the NBA as a coach. He has served as an informal assistant to head coach Bryan Gates all season, and he has learned to use his wits to overcome the knee injuries that prevented him from becoming one of the top point guards of the Jason Kidd era.

"He seems to anticipate two or three plays in advance,'' said a scout who closely follows the D-League. "He has always been able to motivate his teammates to elevate their games.''

Another future NBA coach may be Darvin Ham, 34, the former NBA forward who played for the Albuquerque Thunderbirds before being traded to the Toros three weeks ago.

1. Ian Mahinmi, Austin Toros. The 6-foot-9 Mahinmi, a surprise No. 28 pick in 2005 by San Antonio, is viewed as the top prospect in these Finals. The 21-year-old averaged 17.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks for the Spurs' farm team this season after coming over from the French league.

"He has the physical skills to excel,'' the scout said. "He has improved his understanding of the NBA game while learning to be more aggressive at both ends of the floor. Early in the season, he struggled to stay out of foul trouble; now he has improved his footwork and defensive ability to where he can rebound and block or contest shots without getting into foul trouble. He needs to develop a consistent low-post game and a go-to move, and he needs to work on his mid-range jumper so he can step out and be a threat from 12 to 15 feet.''

The scout likes three other prospects from Idaho in the Finals: Undersized but skilled former Gonzaga power forward Cory Violette (6-8, 265 pounds), whose 19 points -- including the go-ahead free throw with 21.3 seconds left -- helped force Game 3; athletic defender Brent Pettway (6-8, 205), who played at Michigan; and explosive point guard Mike Taylor (6-1, 190), who is eligible for the draft this year (he was dismissed from the Iowa State team before his senior season last July, a few weeks after the 2007 draft).

1. They were my preseason pick. Here's the backstory: Two years ago, the Heat were my preseason pick to win the championship, but by midseason I'd given up on them, which was a decision I didn't regret until the second half of Game 4 in the NBA Finals that year. So this year I figured I would stick with the Mavericks no matter what, because if you aren't going to play the occasional long shot then why bother going to the track? The question now is whether these Mavericks are capable of doing to New Orleans what the Heat did to the old Mavericks in those NBA Finals two years ago. I fully admit, I don't like my chances.

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