King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Losing to win: The NBA needs to fix its playoff system so teams aren't tempted to back into lower, comfier seeds.

By Salon Staff
April 19, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)
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The NBA really has to do something about its playoff seeding system.

The Los Angeles Clippers, losers to the Memphis Grizzlies Tuesday night in a bizarro-world "showdown" for fifth place in the Western Conference Tuesday night, are the latest example of a team backing and filling down the stretch, not trying to lose, exactly, but hoping to gracefully plop into the more desirable sixth seed for the playoffs.


There are bigger problems in the world, I suppose -- poverty, hunger, all those foul shots and timeouts and the end of close games -- but this one's fixable.

The three division winners automatically get the top three seeds in each conference, and everyone else is seeded in order of winning percentage, 4 through 8. In the first round of the playoffs, the 1 seed plays No. 8, the 2 plays No. 7 and so on.

So when one of the second-place teams is better than one of the champs, the fourth seed is a better team, and presumably a tougher opponent, than the third. That makes the sixth seed, which plays No. 3, a happier place to be than the fifth, which plays that powerful runner-up, now seeded fourth.


In the example at hand, it's not that the Clippers were trying to lose to the Grizzlies, exactly. It's just that they had better things to do than win. Stars Sam Cassell and Chris Kaman never left the bench. James Singleton, who averages 12 minutes a game, played 45.

The Clips who played played hard, L.A. even staging a rousing second-half comeback that fell short. And there's coach Mike Dunleavy's reasonable explanation that with a playoff spot clinched, he was resting his big guns for the postseason grind.

This isn't pure evil going on. It's just an unseemly spectacle. The Clippers on the floor were trying to win, but the Clippers as a franchise were not. Teams that have clinched coast down the stretch all the time in every sport, but there's a difference between coasting because winning gains you nothing and coasting because losing gains you something.


What the Clippers gained was home-court advantage in a first-round series with the 44-37 Denver Nuggets instead of playing the 60-21 Dallas Mavericks and starting on the road.

"It was a bizarre game," Grizzlies forward Shane Battier told the Associated Press. "I'll leave it at that."


The Grizzlies, by the way, came into the game one game ahead of the Clippers for fifth place in the conference with two to play, so they had a chance to lose their way to sixth too. But the Grizz lost in the first round of the playoffs the last two years after staggering down the stretch, losing six of their last seven in 2004 and seven of their last eight last year, and they'd decided that finishing strong was more important than avoiding Dallas.

"The last couple of years, we haven't played well going in and it showed," Memphis guard Mike Miller said. "If that doesn't work, you have to try something new."

Even if the Clippers' hearts were pure, there's a whiff of something fishy in them battling for a playoff spot with their best players on the bench, and that's a whiff the NBA doesn't need. This is a sport that has brought us fairly regular point-shaving scandals.


"If people think we were trying to throw games or whatever, they've really got it wrong," said Walter McCarty of the Clippers, and there's no reason to believe he wasn't being sincere. But something's wrong when NBA players are even having to address the question of thrown games.

The NBA instituted the draft lottery to combat exactly this situation, teams benefiting from losing.

How often does this happen, when the sixth seed is a better thing to be than the fifth? It happens a lot. Statistically, it ought to happen more than two-thirds of the time.


The NBA has had its three-division format for two years, meaning there have been four conference races. In three of the four, the fourth seed has been better than the third, and in the other, this year's Eastern Conference, the third and fourth seeds, Atlantic Division champion New Jersey and Central Division runner-up Cleveland, are tied with a game to play.

Baseball has had a three-division format since 1995, and the wild-card team, the best runner-up, has been better than one of the division champs in 11 of 22 league seasons. The NHL has had a three-division format since 1998, and in 14 conference seasons since then, including this one, the best runner-up has been better than one of the champs 10 times.

Both of those sports have unbalanced schedules, which changes the odds of a runner-up being better than a champ, but you can see this isn't a rare event.

The good news is there is an easy, elegant solution. The NBA should simply seed the eight playoff teams in each conference according to winning percentage. Division champs ought to get passage into the postseason even in the unlikely event they're not one of the top eight teams, but they shouldn't get an artificially high seed.


It might be different if the divisions meant something, but they don't. The NBA plays a balanced conference schedule. Teams play four games a year against each of their division rivals and against six of their 10 interdivision foes in the same conference. They play three games against the other four conference teams, just to make the season come out to 82 games instead of 86.

So winning your division doesn't necessarily mean you've come through some sort of crucible, emerging from a season-long battle. It just means you've been grouped with four teams that aren't as good as you. The grouping itself is geographical. In terms of winning and losing, it's random. There's no need to reward the winner beyond letting it into the playoffs.

In fact, given the balanced schedule and the fact that the top eight make the playoffs, there's no need to have divisions at all, except that standings showing all 15 teams in one long list would be aesthetically unpleasant.

In the NHL, with its new severely unbalanced schedule, winning your division does mean something.


Seeding NBA teams by winning percentage wouldn't change much. It would just mean that teams would have incentive to win and no incentive to lose at the end of the season. That's a pretty big thing.

I also have an elegant solution to the problem of all those timeouts and foul shots at the ends of games: Eliminating timeouts and foul shots.

The world too often scoffs at genius.

Previous column: Complete game uproar


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