Conference call: Realign NBA like the NHL

Since the NBA was ready to follow the NHL down the sinkhole of a lost season in pursuit of a hard salary cap, perhaps it might want to try to copy the NHL and boldly realign the league. It would make regular-season travel easier, make the TV schedule better for local fans, and make the playoffs better for everyone. Win-win-win.

Now, the NHL had a greater need for change because its current setup doesn’t bring every team to every arena, and it has Eastern time zone teams (Detroit *and Columbus) playing in the Western Conference and the newly relocated Winnipeg Jets playing in the Southeast Division. But the NBA could benefit from scrapping its six divisions in two conferences and going to four conferences (two with seven teams and two with eight teams ) as the NHL proposed Monday at its Board of Governors meeting. For the NBA it could cut the number of West Coast trips for Central time zone teams and more importantly pave the way to a re-seeded “semifinal” round of the playoffs – an antidote to years in which lopsided talent distribution can make the NBA Finals seem anti-climactic.

Here’s the way the proposed NHL realignment would work: Teams in the seven-team conferences would play each other six times a season (for a total of 36 games), while teams in the eight-team conferences would play conference opponents five and six times a season on a rotating basis for a total of 38 games. Every team will play all teams in the other conferences twice, home and away (46 games for the seven-team conferences, 44 for the eight-team conferences). Since the NBA also has 30 teams and an 82-game schedule this could easily be adapted.

The top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs and start with the No. 1 seed in the conference playing the conference’s No. 4 seed, while No. 2 would play No. 3. Winners of those series would meet in the second round. After that, the NHL hasn’t yet decided how to seed the remaining four teams. My mind’s made up: if the NBA adopted this plan it could simply seed the final four based on overall regular-seasonrecord, regardless of location. This way you could avoid the current possibility of the two best teams in the league potentially meeting in the conference finals instead of on the greatest stage of the NBA Finals. (One prime example was in 2002, when the 58-win Lakers beat a 61-win Kings team in an epic seven-game Western Conference finals…then swept a 52-win Nets squad in the NBA Finals).

In the meantime you could dispense with the divisional format, which is almost irrelevant. All anyone cares about during the regular season is playoff seeding, and that’s largely based on the conference standings anyway, with a divisional title guaranteeing a top-four seed. Going to a four-conference format could eliminate the glitch of a team that happened to play in a lousy division locking up a higher seed over a more deserving team.

David Stern always fended off calls to seed the entire playoffs, 1-16, regardless of conference. He did so in part because he didn’t want the prospect of teams criss-crossing the country in every round. In the new, NHL-style format you could keep the travel manageable in the first two rounds – even easier than it is at the moment. A four-conference format would increase the likelihood (and even guarantee it in one of my scenarios) that teams wouldn’t have to leave their time zones for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Teams definitely would have better travel in the regular season. Last season Western Conference teams based in the Central time zone, such as the Minnesota and San Antonio Spurs, had to play nine games in the Pacific time zone. That meant televising games with a tipoff after 9 p.m. in their home market. The distance and two-hour time difference also meant losing an entire day when traveling back from a trip that ended on the West Coast, something the Timberwolves did four times last year, for example. Going to the four-conferences format could cap the number of Pacific time zone games at five for every team east of Denver.

Here’s how I’d break down the four conferences. (Names still pending, but definitely something better than the “Leaders” and “Legends” the Big Ten Conference used. I’m down to use the names of deceased hip-hop stars for now).

Conference A (“Tupac Conference”): Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz.

*Five Pacific time zone teams, three Mountain time zone teams. The same geographical grouping as the Pacific-12 Conference, minus the state of Washington (I’d be more than happy to make this a nine-team conference if it meant Seattle got a new team)

Conference B (“Eazy-E Conference”): Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs.

*All seven teams play in the Central time zone, and all of them are West of or adjacent to the Mississippi River.

Conference C (“Notorious B.I.G. Conference”): Boston Celtics, Brooklyn (New Jersey) Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers.

*It was a little tougher to split up the Eastern teams. I chose to make this bunch all Northern, in the Midwest and the Northeast. REVISED to respond to commenters who wanted to keep the 76ers grouped with the Celtics and Knicks.

Conference D (“Jam Master Jay Conference”) : Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards.

*Not easy to keep the Bulls away from old rivals the Pistons...but Bulls-Pistons is more old than rivalry these day. Not a lot of history here. Perhaps a chance to make some.

This is about the closest thing to legislated equality as you can get. It doesn’t change the desire for free agents to play in big markets, but under this scenario, teams in Conference B wouldn’t have to compete with the Lakers for a playoff spot and teams in Conference C wouldn’t have to battle warm-weather cities to get to the postseason. A place in the tournament can be had by beating out as few three other teams, some of them facing the same financial or geographical challenges.

However, there would be a price to pay for playing in a stacked conference. For example, New Orleans and Memphis finished with identical records and both made the playoffs last season, with the Hornets giving the Lakers a good run and the Grizzlies knocking off the top-seeded Spurs, then tangling with the Thunder in a memorable seven-game series. One of them would have missed out on the fun if my version of the NHL format been used, because there were three teams ahead of them in their conference. A Phoenix team with a losing record in Conference A would have made the playoffs instead (assuming all records were the same even though the distribution of games would have been different. The divisional-record tie-breaker that gave New Orleans a higher seeding would not be in effect anymore with no divisions.)

So there might be a little controversy at the bottom of the playoff rankings at the start of the playoffs. The payback would be better matchups in the semifinal and final rounds. And there could be better rivalries developed during the regular season. For everyone who thinks the NBA has gotten too buddy-buddy, there’s nothing like teams facing off against each other six times a year to generate some animosity.

This is the time for the NBA to take a cue from the NHL. In this case it would actually be a good idea.