Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mavericks, Bucks Switch Conferences

Although the defending NBA champions reside in Miami, the Western Conference has been considered far superior to its Eastern counterpart. Today, commissioner David Stern made an announcement that will hugely impact the balance of power between the two sides. Effective immediately, the Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks will switch conferences.

The league office made the decision with a forward view toward the NBA finals. The Washington Wizards currently have the best record in the Eastern Conference, but they would be the sixth seed in the West. Meanwhile, Dallas and the Phoenix Suns have been far-and-away the best teams in the NBA. Therefore, most observers expected the NBA finals to be far less suspenseful than the Western Conference finals. Always mindful of ratings, Stern decided to take action. He remarked in today’s press conference, “Why CAN’T the Mavericks play the Suns in the finals? I can do whatever I want – I’m David Stern, dammit!” He then suspended five players for “looking at me the wrong way” before killing a reporter with his bare hands.

The shift of the Bucks and Mavericks appears to make geographical sense. Like all professional sports leagues, the NBA aspires to be like the NFL, which has long considered Dallas to be in the East. Also, Dallas is in the Central Time Zone, so it is natural for the Mavs to be part of the Central Division. Likewise, the Southwest Division is a good fit for Milwaukee, which is in southern Wisconsin and west of Lake Michigan.

With the move to the East, Dallas immediately becomes an overwhelming favorite to reach the finals. The Heat may struggle just to make the playoffs, the Pistons are less fearsome than a year ago, and the Wizards have not figured out how to clone Gilbert Arenas. Participating in the Eastern Conference playoffs will also make life more convenient for Mavs owner Mark Cuban. Each week during the postseason, he can stop by the NBA office in New York to pay his fines in person.

Despite moving to the tougher conference, Milwaukee also stands to benefit. The Bucks will immediately exit last place, since their new division includes the Memphis Grizzlies. They will also be reminded of the glory days of the franchise, as the Bucks were members of the Western Conference when they won the 1971 NBA championship and appeared in the finals three years later. On a related note, management is hoping to add the services of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in his prime.

Coincidentally, the Bucks’ move to the East in 1980 was brought about by the Mavericks’ entry into the league. Since then, Milwaukee has been a haven for teams who switch conferences. The Brewers went from the American League to the National League in 1998. Marquette shifted from Conference USA to the Big East in 2005. And Richie Cunningham’s Jefferson High School basketball squad is now competing in the Arkansas state playoffs.

While the Super Bowl will still dominate the sports media this week, Stern’s announcement managed to bring major headlines for the NBA. That momentum should continue through the February 18 All-Star Game, as Dirk Nowitzki suits up for the Eastern Conference. The buzz was particularly noticeable in the two cities involved. The switch represents the most high-profile Dallas-Milwaukee swap since J.R. Ewing dealt his brother Bobby for Lenny, Squiggy, and a Big Ragu to be named later.

We will have to wait a few months before we know whether the move pays off in the NBA finals. In the meantime, one Dallas player provided a great omen of his team’s title chances in last night’s 122-102 rout of the Seattle Sonics. Austin Croshere connected seven times from beyond the arc en route to a career-high 34 points. He seemed to have learned something from Tony Romo. If you hope to bring a championship to Dallas, you need to nail your three-pointers against Seattle.