Now that the NBA is divided into six divisions, six teams are guaranteed a top three seed in their conference. We've blogged about this problem before.
The textbook example of what's wrong with that is the fact that the mediocre Nets are in line to be the third seed in the East. Consider this quote from Nets coach Lawrence Frank:
"You look at the standings and we're in first in the Atlantic, but we're also three games (in the loss column) from not being in the playoffs."
Cleveland is three games better at the moment, but is ranked fourth--which means they have to play a higher seed in each of the first two rounds.
Indiana could be a pretty good team by playoff time--with a newly integrated Peja Stojakovic and, hopefully, a healthy Jermaine O'Neal. Right now they're in fifth place and would face Cleveland in the first round, and then potentially Detroit in the second round. If you're the Pacers, though, wouldn't you rather face New Jersey in the first round, and then the winner of Miami/Philadelphia in the second round? With a healthy O'Neal, Indiana has a decent shot at the conference finals in that scenario.
It's actually a very interesting time among seeds 3-10 in the East. There are seven teams within only nine games seperating the best from the worst in the loss column. The best of them gets home court in the first round, as does the winner of the Atlantic. Whoever has a sizable losing streak will miss the playoffs entirely. And through the haze, someone will luck into that sixth spot, while someone else will earn the honor of losing to the Pistons in the first round. It could be that those are all close.
And Chicago and Boston are still in this thing. There's a great patch one of those teams ranked ahead of them will hit a rough patch and fall out of the playoffs.
For that reason, if I were a coach of any of those teams, I'd forget aiming for the sixth spot and do everything possible to just keep winning for now. Then, when the playoff spot is assured (which could be in the last few days of the season) I'd start calculating whether or not it might be good for my star players to get "back spasms" or "tendonitis" in an attempt to lose a game or two to get that sixth spot.
One final thing to think about? Any of these spots could be decided by a tie-breaker, which means these teams head-to-head matchups are especially important. This'll be fun to watch.