The NBA will be conducting a seminar on the law of unintended consequences over the next six weeks as several Eastern Conference teams battle for the sixth seed in the playoffs -- including teams currently seeded fourth and fifth.
That's the unintended consequence of the offseason realignment into three divisions in each conference, which was undertaken because -- oh, shoot, there was a minute there last fall when I felt like I understood why the NBA realigned its divisions when nobody pays attention to divisions anyway, including, for the most part, the schedule maker.
The three division champions automatically get the top three seeds, but the NBA passed a rule a few years ago that says home-court advantage in a playoff series goes to the team with the better record, not the higher seed. That rule was passed because it seemed unfair to force the better team to play on the road because of the bad luck of being in a tougher division.
Having three five-team divisions in each conference makes it more likely that a bad team will be a division champ than in the old two-division format, and sure enough, right here in Year 1, we have the Celtics leading the Atlantic with a 27-27 record.
Last year the worst of the four division winners was the Nets, who at 47-35 were a total anomaly. They were by far the worst division champion since the Jazz in 1983-84, when the NBA had 23 teams including the Washington Bullets, Kansas City Kings and San Diego Clippers. Under the two-division format, the top two seeds in the East this year would have been the Heat and Pistons, who happen to be the two best teams in the conference.
So last year if you were a team in the lower reaches of the Eastern Conference playoffs, you might have wanted to shoot for the seventh seed because you got to play the Nets, but it wasn't that much of a bargain.
The eighth seed ended up having to play the Pacers, 14 games better than New Jersey, and the sixth seed had to play the Pistons, seven games better than the Nets. But the Nets were still eight games ahead of the eventual No. 7 Knicks and got to open at home. And being No. 5 was way better than being No. 7 because you got to play the Heat, who were worse than the Nets.
This year, though, No. 6 is where it's at. Even the fourth seed will have a tougher opponent in No. 5 than the sixth seed will have in No. 3. Based on current standings, if the fourth-seed Cavaliers (now 31-22) sank to sixth, they'd get to avoid the Wizards (30-22) and play the Celtics (27-27), while still getting home court.
The sixth seed Bulls (27-23), by improving to fifth, would lose the home court and the Celtics and gain an extra road game and LeBron James.
Now, I'd never suggest that a team would tank games to drop in the standings and get a better first-round playoff matchup, including, ka-ching, an extra home game. That's what I'd do, but I'm not suggesting any NBA teams would do it, and the coaches and players always say they'd never tank a game.
Of course, if the Cavs and Wizards are still four and five and within losing distance of six a month from now, watch the injury wire for reports of pesky owies for Messrs. James, Ilgauskas, Arenas and Jamison, not to mention Mr. Hinrich of Chicago if the Bulls are still No. 6.
If the NBA is going to have divisions -- and honestly, I can't think of a reason why it should have divisions -- it ought to reward the teams that win them with home-court advantage. The better team opening on the road is a lesser evil than the prospect of teams intentionally losing games.
Whether teams actually do try to lose games or not, any system in which losing offers a significant advantage is a bad system. The NBA introduced the draft lottery to deal with just such a problem. It ought to take care of this one too.
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Live fast, drink hard [PERMALINK]
Speaking of the law of unintended consequences, how about the European Union's ban on tobacco sponsorships for major sporting events, which goes into effect July 31?
One byproduct of that is that Formula One teams sponsored by cigarette companies have to find new sources of revenue. So McLaren, heretofore a billboard for West cigarettes, has signed a three-year deal with Johnnie Walker, the Scotch whisky maker, that could pay up to $85.9 million, not counting the $11.4 million the distillery has pledged to spend on responsible drinking campaigns.
I doubt this is what the E.U. Parliament had in mind. I don't spend a lot of time reading the foreign blats but I'd be surprised if any MEPs made impassioned speeches about how F1 shouldn't be encouraging kids to smoke, it should be encouraging kids to drink. And drive 200 mph.
Groups concerned with alcohol abuse are, of course, unhappy with the sponsorship, just as they have been with beer sponsorships for years.
The reason I'm telling you all this is so I can get to this quote by Charles Allen, the managing director of Johnnie Walker, which is looking to boost its hipness quotient and sales among young men: "Johnnie Walker is on a journey to become an icon of personal progress."
I always feel like I'm on a journey of personal progress when I'm drinking Scotch. By about the seventh one, I'm positively moderne.
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Reggie Dunlop lives! [PERMALINK]
If you're missing hockey, and I know some of you are, you should be paying attention to the low-minors United Hockey League, where a coach was suspended last week for putting a $200 bounty on the head of an opposing player.
Now that's hockey!
The league iced Motor City Mechanics coach Steve Shannon for the rest of the year after finding that he'd offered his players the two bills to put the hurt on Kevin Kerr of the Flint Generals in a game three weeks ago. Shannon accepted his punishment while denying he'd offered the bounty, saying he hadn't had $200 in his pocket that night.
He didn't have it! I love this stuff. Assistant John Blum was suspended for 10 games.
Hockey scalps seem not to have kept up with inflation. In "Slap Shot," released this very week in 1977, Chiefs coach Reggie Dunlop, played by Paul Newman, offers $100 to the first player "who really creams" Tim McCracken, "the head coach and chief punk on that Syracuse team." In today's money, that was more than $300.
Kerr -- the bount-ee -- is the leading goal scorer in the history of professional minor-league hockey. The 37-year-old veteran had committed the offense of making the reasonable point that NHL players were hypocrites for signing to play in the UHL, which, hello, has a strict salary cap, the very thing NHL players are going to the mat to fight in their own league.
Kerr was responding to the Mechanics signing Red Wings Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher and Kris Draper. Draper had visa problems and never showed, but the Mechanics later signed Red Wing Jason Woolley, Ottawa Senator Bryan Smolinski and Los Angeles King Sean Avery. All NHL players who have signed with UHL teams say they're donating their pay to charity.
"Here they are, fighting the NHL for more money and they'll come down to our league and play for free," Kerr had said on the eve of a Feb. 2 Generals-Mechanics game. "It makes no sense. They're a bunch of hypocrites ... I think they're basically shooting themselves in the foot. They're showing they just want to play hockey, so they'll play for nothing. It's absolutely asinine."
Shannon reportedly issued his bounty offer before that game, which the Generals won 5-1.
Kerr also pointed out that by coming down to the UHL -- which is three levels down from the NHL, roughly analogous to Single-A or independent-league baseball -- the big-leaguers, all millionaires, were taking ice time and possibly even jobs away from guys who make as little as $12,000 a year.
"What these guys make in a day, we make in a year," Kerr said, "and here they come and want to take away our guys' livelihood at this level. It just doesn't make sense."
"People criticize us for coming down and playing in this league, but were just looking to improve ourselves," Barret Jackman of the St. Louis Blues said in a league press release. Jackman is playing for the Missouri River Otters, who play in the St. Louis suburbs. "This is our job -- we are hockey players, and we are a part of the team, Jackman said.
Kerr had already responded to that sentiment: "Well, you know what? Go start your own league."
Which might not be a bad idea.
The UHL is rocking, by the way. The Adirondack Frostbite, Muskegon Fury, Fort Wayne Komets, Kalamazoo Wings and Rockford IceHogs are all within two points of each other at the top of the overall standings.
Previous column: Steroid revelations are big business
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