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West is still best

Seeding might improve postseaeon

When several Eastern Conference teams got off to fast starts this season, there were hopeful league and media declarations that — finally — parity had returned to the NBA.

Right.

With three-quarters of the season gone, it's painfully obvious that the East is still least.

The evidence:

— Through last Wednesday's games, West teams had a .578 winning percentage against their peers in the East.

— Only three East teams had winning records against the West: New Jersey at 11-10; Boston at 12-9; and New Orleans at 15-11.

— Ten West teams had winning records against the East, including Golden State, the conference's 10th-best team. The Warriors were 10 games over .500 (16-6) against the East, 10 games under .500 (14-24) against the West.

There's more, but without belaboring the point statistically, it's clear that as the season has progressed, the West has feasted on the East.

Take the Jazz, for example. Against the East's three best teams, the Jazz are 3-2. They lost to the Pistons twice in November before a lineup change helped them overcome a 2-7 start. They have since beaten the Nets twice and the Pacers once.

The Jazz have the sixth-best record in the West, and in all likelihood will be caught by the Lakers and end up going into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. If they were in the East, they'd have as good a chance as any team of going to the NBA Finals.

The simple fact is the Jazz match up better with any of the Eastern "powers" than they do with such West heavies as San Antonio, Sacramento and Dallas.

The league's obvious imbalance over the past few seasons — since the demise of the Bulls — has led some to suggest that the NBA might offer a more competitive postseason by seeding the playoffs, much like the NCAA.

If, for instance, you used the most recent ESPN.com rankings to seed teams, the top six seeds would be from the West. The highest-ranked East team would be the Sixers, who have been on a roll lately and risen to the No. 7 spot in ESPN's estimation.

In such a scenario, there would be a good chance that the NBA's "Final Four" would consist of the Spurs, Kings, Mavericks and Lakers, and that would be vastly more entertaining than some anticlimactic East-West debacle.

The CBSSportsline.com power rankings also rate the top six teams as coming from the West. If that poll were used to create matchups, the Jazz — ranked 10th — would meet the Nets in the first round. And does anyone think Utah wouldn't have a better chance against New Jersey than it would against, say, San Antonio?

Such a system wouldn't put the Jazz any closer to being title contenders, but it would give them a better chance of getting past the first round.

Last season, the Jazz entered the postseason as the No. 8 seed and lost in the first round to the Kings. Other West first-round losers were Minnesota, Portland and Seattle.

An argument could be made that any one of those first-round losers would have been at worst an even bet against the East's best team, the Nets. All four of those teams went 1-1 against New Jersey last season.

Regular-season results aren't conclusive, of course, as evidenced by the fact New Jersey split with the Lakers last season before getting swept by L.A. in the Finals. But the fact is the Nets gave the Lakers less trouble than their two previous playoff foes, the Kings and Spurs.

Of course, the very factors that make a seeding-type postseason appealing to West teams are what make it unappealing to Eastern franchises. They're a lot less interested in fans being entertained than in keeping their coffers full, and playoff games are big revenue boosters.

If the playoffs were to feature a preponderance of West teams, it might serve to perpetuate the West's dominance. Whoever puts together ESPN's rankings somehow managed to get eight East teams in the top 16, but CBSSportsline's rankings put 10 West teams in the top 16. If the postseason were to feature that many West entrants, the result would be a sizable chunk of revenue lost by Eastern Conference teams.

It might also mean a continued exodus of talent westward. There already has been a trend in recent seasons for big-name free agents to sign with West teams, and there's little evidence that is likely to wane. New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd, perhaps the best player in the East, is said to be leaning toward joining buddy Tim Duncan in San Antonio next season. Such an emigration wave would only be more apt to continue if 10 — instead of 8 — West teams could boast to free agents that they were of playoff-caliber.

Naturally, players in the East are still proclaiming their teams every bit as good as their West counterparts. Detroit's Ben Wallace recently told the Associated Press, "I think the Eastern Conference is capable of competing with anybody. It's just a matter of staying focused and not getting caught up in all that hype that the West is so dominant over the East."

Except it's not just hype. It's recent history, it's current event, it's statistical fact. And, come June, it will be another NBA title for the Western Conference champ.


EAST vs. WEST

.422

TEAM RECORD

New Jersey 12-11

Detroit 11-11

Indiana 10-11

Philadelphia 10-11

Boston 12-9

New Orleans 15-11

Orlando 9-12

Milwaukee 7-13

Washington 9-12

New York 11-12

Atlanta 9-15

Chicago 6-13

Miami 6-17

Toronto 6-15

Cleveland 6-17

TOTAL 139-190

WEST vs. EAST

.578

TEAM RECORD

Dallas 22-4

San Antonio 15-5

Sacramento 16-6

Portland 18-6

Minnesota 16-10

Utah 13-10

L.A. Lakers 12-11

Phoenix 15-11

Houston 13-11

Golden State 16-6

Seattle 13-14

L.A. Clippers 8-16

Memphis 9-10

Denver 4-19

TOTALS 190-139

Through Wednesday's games


E-mail: rich@desnews.com