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A two-part solution to the NBA’s playoff problem

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The Suns host the Pelicans on Thursday night in what can only be described as the opposite of March Madness. There’s no win-or-go-home in the NBA.

For two or three teams in the Western Conference — maybe these two teams — it’s going to be a tale of win and go home this season.

Once again, the ‘s long-standing issue of conference imbalance is rearing its inconvenient head. As the standings sit now, three non-playoff teams in the West have a record that’s better than or equal to the eighth-place team in the East. Barring something unforeseen, it will be the 12th time in 15 seasons that the conference playoff system will send an inferior team from the East to the postseason instead of a better team from the West.

Potentially, three of them.

This has to stop. But how?

During All-Star weekend in New York, commissioner Adam Silver lamented the truth of conference imbalance without committing to anything beyond more study and debate on the competition committee. That discussion will happen too late to do any good for New Orleans, Phoenix, Utah or potentially Oklahoma City in this year’s postseason landscape.

The Suns won 48 games last season and missed the playoffs in the West, while Washington and Brooklyn (44 wins apiece), Charlotte (43) and Atlanta (38) waltzed into the big dance. Phoenix, with a 37-30 record to date, and New Orleans (37-30) could be on the outside looking in while Milwaukee (34-34), Miami (31-36) and Indiana or Boston (both 30-37) are rewarded for mediocrity.

“If there was a simple solution we would have made it long ago,” Silver said during his All-Star address last month. “I understand the notion that we should have the absolute 16 best teams competing in the playoffs seemingly regardless of conferences and divisions. I am a believer, though, in the conference and the division system.”

A believer in what? Punishing achievement? The elaborately orchestrated prime-time show that is the NBA playoffs should represent what it purports to: a tournament for the best teams in the sport. 

That’s not what it will be this season. That’s not what it’s been for a solid decade-and-a-half.

But recognizing absurdity is easy. Correcting it is another matter. For one thing, the decision on any changes to the postseason format will be up to the owners, and it’s difficult to imagine the owners of the Eastern Conference teams that routinely get a free pass to the playoffs voting for change.

The simplest way to fix it is simply to rank the teams 1-16 regardless of conference and proceed with postseason business as usual — with the 16 best teams. With charter finsists he hasn’t joined Everton to sit on the bench.With Jordan Pickford firmly established as No.1 for both club and country, the Dane has so far been restricted to a watching brief since his summer arrival from Huddersfield Town.But he told Tipsbllights, the impact of East-West travel in the first round would be minimized. But again, some Eastern Conference owners would rather samba with Mark Cuban on Dancing With The Stars than give up millions in playoff gate revenue. 

Silver has said many times he’s open to taking a fresh look at everything about how the NBA does business, so here’s Italia says Young’s proposed move to Inter Milan from United is reportedly in danger of falling through.The Red Devils captain is understood to have recently turned down a new contract at Old Trafford with the view of joining the Serie A club.Howeveran idea. There’s no harm in ideas, right?

The first part might solve the conference imbalance problem all by itself, while having some other imporhe transfer window in Qatar does not close until September 30 and Al Gharafa are targeting the 28-year-old, who has fallen down the pecking order at Goodison Park following the summer signing of Moise Kean.Tosun has not played in the Premier League atant benefits, too.

This solves several problems Silver has prioritized all at once. A shorter regular season spread over a similar timeframe (unlike the compressed 2011-12 lockout season) would address the issue of wear and tear on the players by eliminating back-to-backs and four games in five nights. Also, if a scheduling formula similar to the lockout season were used, teams would play a higher percentage of games within the conference.

In 2011-’12, teams played 48 of 66 games within the conference, or 73 percent. In a typical 82-game season, teams play 52 of 82 in the conference, or 63 percent. If the NBA is insistent on preserving the current division and conference format, a higher percentage of conference games would provide a clearer representation of the best teams in the conference, no? It was only one season, but the 66-game schedule in ’11-’12 produced one of the three instances in the past 15 years in which the ninth-place team in the West did not have a better record than the eighth-place team in the East. Go figure.

Not to mention the fact that fewer games would make the regular season more meaningful and intense — in a less-is-more, quality-over-quantity kind of way. Lifting some of the physical demands on the players also would mitigate the need to rest them — and with a shorter window to sort out contenders from pretenders, coaches would be incentivized to put their best talent on the floor every night.

If Silver and the owners wanted to, they could stop there for now. Try this for a couple of years and see if they achieve the unintended consequence of fixing conference imbalance.

Of course, A) there are no guarantees it would produce the desired outcome every season, and B) the owners and players would need a way to make up for a 20 percent reduction in gate revenue. Plus, the TV networks, which just committed $24 billion over nine years to televise 82-game NBA seasons, would want a do-over. Although in lockout-shortened ’11-’12, they were OK with paying the full boat of rights fees for a season that didn’t start until Christmas Day — which marks the first network telecast of the season, anyway.

Rank the teams 1-18 and have a single-elimination play-in tournament to determine the 16th seed.

Wait, what? in April? You got it.

So No. 17 plays No. 18 in a win-or-go-home game for the right to play No. 16 in a win-or-go-home game. The team that emerges from the tournament wins the right to face the No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.

Of course, if there are ties, it could get messy. What if there were a three-way tie for 18th, as there could be this season if such a system were in place? You could use traditional tiebreakers to break the tie for 18th and then follow the plan above — or, even better, expand the tournament. More single-elimination games = more excitement = more money.

While Silver would need to do some arm-twisting and serious negotiating to get owners to agree to play-in games anywhere but their own building, the ideal setting for this tournament would be a neutral site — Las Vegas. A deal would have to be struck as far as the revenue split for the tournament, but what owner wouldn’t want to have some playoff revenue instead of no playoff revenue? 

In this way, my plan indirectly addresses another bane of the modern NBA: tanking. Rather than folding it up and waiting for the ping-pong balls to fall at the draft lottery, teams that under the current system would be on the outside looking in would get a share of the play-in tournament revenue — while also getting the opportunity to play for the bigger prize of at least two home playoff games in the first round.

Rule No. 1: Follow the money, and the money shall set ye free.

The single-elimination format, NCAA Tournament-style, is antithetic to the NBA’s longstanding postseason model. And it’s far from perfect; details, such as how to handle tiebreakers and how to make enough money to justify it, are challenging. But so what? At one time, the NBA used a best-of-three and best-of-five format. Why not try best-of-one?

Even after a shorter regular season, a single-elimination game might not be the fairest way to determine who advances. But wouldn’t the 48-win Suns of last season have preferred the opportunity to play one or two more games for the right to advance to the Big Dance as opposed to watching the playoffs on TV? Wouldn’t the Jazz, 11th in the West with the same record as the eighth-place Pacers in the East this season, take win-or-go-home over win-and-go-home?

Before you ridicule my idea, it’s only an idea. I’m open to others, and surely there are smarter people working on this problem who could come up with a better one. 

But for now, why not consider taking the madness out of the NBA’s imbalanced playoff format, while putting a little Madness in at the same time? Seems better than the alternative to me.

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