George Karl wants playoff teams seeded with no regard to conference

The NBA Playoffs are but a few weeks away, which means that teams are now jockeying for higher seeds and looking for ideal matchups for the first round. It's a tradition of this time of the season, along with lottery teams shutting down players with any apparent injuries and embattled coaches doing everything to convince their bosses they deserve to keep their jobs.

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As is tradition, all playoff matchups until the NBA Finals will be between teams in the same conference. Yet, if one veteran coach gets his wish, the league will eventually seed all playoff teams by record with no regard to conference affiliation. From Benjamin Hochman for The Denver Post:

So basically, here's Karl's idea: The top eight teams from the Western Conference and the top eight teams from the Eastern Conference are put into a playoff pool. At this point, conference affiliation no longer matters. Instead, it's all about record.

The team with the best record plays the team with the 16th-best record and so on.

And then, like he said, they reseed hockey-style for the next round. And so, the NBA's "Final Four" could be four teams from the same conference — but, as proven by this system, perhaps the four best teams in basketball.

"I think it would get fans excited, man. It would be crazy," Karl said. "And we travel with private jets now, so I think you can schedule it to where you'd get two days of rest between games. I think it would be really fun and interesting to see the matchups."

NBA observers have long argued that teams should be seeded by record so that the best 16 teams in the league make the playoffs, but Karl's suggestion is a little more practical because it maintains conference affiliations. That's important for the NBA not because tradition is inherently good — teams have changed conference before without much problem — but because it makes sense for the league to maximize the geographic breadth of the playoffs. The league is a business, after all, and a business needs to maximize its potential consumers. This plan would do that, at least for one round.

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To put it another way, Karl likes this plan because it values performance and makes the playoffs more fun. And while I'm not sure the current first-round matchups — for reference: Heat/Bucks, Spurs/Lakers, Thunder/Celtics, Nuggets/Bulls, Clippers/Hawks, Grizzlies/Rockets, Knicks/Warriors, Pacers/Nets — are especially fantastic, they're at least fresher than the alternatives. We haven't seen many of those playoff matchups before, and chances are this system would create greater variety overall.

However, Karl probably needs to think through the plan in some more detail, because it would threaten some of the league's business interests. Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk explains:

Perhaps, the better questions are, would casual Knicks fans be excited enough to stay up late to watch games at Golden State and would casual Warriors fans be exited enough to get home early to watch games at New York?

The biggest problem with Karl’s system wouldn’t be teams travelling, though that would definitely be a concern. It would be television ratings. Perhaps fans would adjust to watching games at less-convenient times, but that’s probably not a risk the NBA would take.

The NBA Playoffs work despite their incredible length in part because fans know the games relevant to their region will be easy to watch. A casual fan of any team knows that their games will begin anywhere between 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. local time (barring a few weird situations like the Memphis Grizzlies playing teams in the Pacific time zone). As Feldman says, will casual fans really want to stay up late or leave work early to watch half the series? Do they care that much?

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Karl's idea isn't bad — it just misses some of the larger issues the NBA has to deal with as an organization. It's a reminder that, as ever, the concerns of a single team (even one that acknowledges that the league functions as entertainment) don't always match up with the interests of the league as a whole. A coach and his team need only focus on winning games, and maybe being entertaining enough to get fans interested. The NBA, though, needs to bring a number of teams to as wide an audience as possible. The organization's decisions are never perfect, but chances are they've considered the scheduling alternatives.

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