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Playoff format will produce some inequity

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Breaking each NBA conference into three divisions — instead of two — seemed like a good idea at the time. With 30 teams in the league, the math made sense. Each conference — still split up as Eastern and Western — having 15 teams. Each division would have five teams. It worked out beautifully — or so it seemed — and was adopted prior to last season.

But the reality is that it's not going to work out beautifully for the two best teams in the Western Conference — the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs. And it may even mean that playoff teams could get a competitive advantage in the postseason by losing a few well-timed regular-season games late in the year.

The problem comes by having a poor five-team division — the Jazz's very own Northwest — combined with having the two best teams in the same division, in this case the Southwest.

To give teams incentive to try to win their own division, each division champion is seeded in the top three in the conference — regardless of their record. That means, if the playoffs were to start based on Saturday morning's standings, the Northwest Division champion Denver Nuggets (30-26) would get the No. 3 seed in the West and would have homecourt advantage against the sixth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (30-25).

San Antoino, meanwhile, which is 42-12 and currently 13 games ahead of the Nuggets in the standings, would be relegated to the No. 4 seed. The fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers (31-23) would get the unenviable task of playing the defending NBA champs in the first round.

It gets even less fair in the second round where — assuming they get past their first-round opponents — the top-seeded Mavericks would be forced to play the Spurs.

So one of the two head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest-of-the-conference teams is guaranteed to be gone before the Western Conference finals.

It's not fair — and it gives the third-best team, the Phoenix Suns, a huge advantage. Again, based on the standings after Friday night's games, Phoenix (36-17) would be the No. 2 seed in the West and would play seventh-seeded New Orleans (29-25) in the first round. If the Suns were to win that series, they would face the winner of the Nuggets/Grizzlies series in the second round — thus avoiding either the Spurs or Mavs until the conference finals.

It's certainly conceivable that the Mavericks and Spurs would beat up on each other so much in the second round that the Western team that comes out of the other bracket — probably the Suns — would face an exhausted opponent and could pull off an upset.

Worse still, it sets up a situation where the No. 6 seed — which will get to play the Northwest champ — will be a much better position to advance than the No. 5 seed. After all, the sixth seed could get all the way to the conference title series without playing either the Mavs or Spurs, and wins in both of the first two rounds wouldn't even be that big of an upset, either.

It sets up the possibility of a team — the Clippers in this situation — dropping a game or two down the stretch so the Grizzlies pass them in the standings in order to avoid the Spurs in the first round.

The situation of having the best two teams in the same division isn't that unusual, either. Even using the new three division setup, five times in the past 10 years it has happened in one or the other conference.

That's too often. Certainly second best team in the conference over a grueling 82-game season should not be relegated to being a No. 4 seed.

A couple of solutions have been suggested — one being to re-seed, based on regular-season records, after the first round. That would probably work, but it won't likely happen.

Better still, however, would be to say that a division title just qualifies a team to one of the top four seeds — not top three. A second-place team with a better record than a division winner could step up and get a second or third seed.

In such a scenario this year, the Mavs would get the No. 1 seed, the Spurs the No. 2 seed, the Suns the No. 3 seed and the Nuggets the fourth seed. Denver would still get homecourt advantage in the first-round, teams wouldn't gain anything by losing on purpose and the Mavs and Spurs would both be rewarded for outstanding play during the regular season by being in opposite brackets.

It's too late for this season, but it will happen.

At least if there is any justice in the world.

E-mail: lojo@desnews.com