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After Chris Sheridan floated the idea of the NBA expanding into Vegas when a replacement in Seattle for the Sonics enters the league got me thinking. With the inevitable realignment, why does it have to be Eastern and Western Conferences?

I propose Northern and Southern Conferences, made up of four divisions of four teams. In the Northern Conference there would be:

There would be the traditional Atlantic Division, made up of Boston, New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

Detroit, Toronto, Milwaukee and Minnesota make up a natural Great Lakes division.

A Northwest division would be comprised of Portland, Seattle, Utah and Denver.

The final Northern Conference division would be the Central; Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and Indiana. For those who recognize the Mason Dixon line as the division of North and South, tough.

Orlando, New Orleans, Miami and Houston could be a feasible Southeast Division. While it would be nice to keep all three Texas teams in the same division, it’s not geographically feasible with where the franchises are. So it goes

I’ve got Oklahoma City (let’s call them the Robber Barons), Memphis, Charlotte and Atlanta in the Dixie Division. If you think Dixie is an improper name for this division, make a suggestion. Or suck on eggs.

The new Las Vegas franchise, the Gamblers, would have the tough luck of being in a Southwest Division alongside Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. Good luck, fellas.

This leaves a tidy package of the four California teams, Los Angeles (2x), Golden State and Sacramento, as the Pacific Division.
One thing this would immediately do is create new rivalries. Hornets/Magic looks like one of the best, finally answering the burning question: Would you rather build around Chris Paul or Dwight Howard? Another promising rivalry would be Pistons/Raptors, two franchises currently epitomizing the idea of “team.” Suns/Mavs and Spurs/Suns are heavyweight match-ups in the Southwest. Cavs/Wizards, quickly becoming a playoff rivalry, would be another exciting new rivalry.

Another difference would be more parity. Maybe the South, with the Lakers, Spurs, Suns, Mavs, Hornets, Magic, would win a majority of titles in the North/South format. The Celtics, Pistons, Jazz and LeBron would have a bone to pick with that notion. But you’ve also got a guaranteed playoff berth to either the Hawks, Grizzlies, Bobcats or Barons. In a few years Hawks/Barons and Bobcats/Grizzlies could be fun games. But on paper, today, that’s a terrible division. It also gives moribund and new franchises a real chance to win and make the playoffs.

One other advantage of a North/South split is it places a new franchise in each conference. Oklahoma City and Seattle are both in the western part of the United States. It would be unfeasible to put two expansion teams into the already stacked Western Conference; they’d be meat for a decade. I also think it would also encourage cultural bonds. New Orleans, Houston and Florida have all become inextricably entwined by the shared turmoil from Mother Nature. Hell, 10-20% of New Orleans is IN Houston. There’s a little known northern corridor between Portland and Milwaukee. Besides both cities sharing a love of PBR, the Rose City has a suburb named Milwaukie. Long ago, Wisconsinites ventured to Oregon. And they brought Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Pabst Blue Ribbon

Encouraging natural rivalries could invigorate the NBA’s sagging ratings. The new conferences will also encourage new business ties between far off cities. When else have Miami and Los Angeles had overlapping schedules in anything? New York and Seattle could both benefit from more games between the franchises. Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a lot of advertisements for states and cities as vacation destinations. My favorite is Jeff Daniels in a commercial for Michigan. California, Texas and ‘Colonial Williamsburg’ are a few others that come to mind. Think of it as free marketing for travel destinations.

Fresh teams would have a chance to break out. Look at the Northern Conference teams. Based on this season’s records (which is an admittedly faulty methodology, since each team would play teams a different number of times), the first round of the playoffs would be Celtics/Blazers, Pistons/Raptors, Jazz/Wizards and Cavs/Nuggets. Portland would have snuck into the playoffs over Philly, even without Greg Oden. and would make a much more exciting first round vs. Boston than the Hawks.

But we can’t escape the Hawks. The Southern Conference first round would be Lakers/Mavs, Hornets/Magic, Spurs/Suns and Hawks/Rockets. Poor Golden State. Even in this scenario, they miss the playoffs. Too bad this is all speculation. But I truly hope that if down the line, the NBA wants to add teams to Vegas and Seattle, someone in David Stern’s ear suggests the Great Lakes and Dixie Divisions.

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I didn’t believe Jon Kitna when he said that the Detroit Lions were a 10-win team this pre-season.

kitna.jpg

But the way they’re playing, they should easily hit the mark. But after this weekend’s 44-7 drubbing of the Denver Broncos, an NFL axiom has been laid to rest. The Denver Broncos can no longer run roughshod over the competition.

There is a reason for this. Tom Nalen, their all-world center, has been on injured reserve for over a month now. It is not often that an offensive lineman is the keystone of your offense, but Nalen has been one of the premiere centers in the NFL for a generation. Plus, the Broncos are 1-3 since losing him.

That’s why I want the voters in Canton to fast track Nalen’s Hall of Fame application. With Nalen out of the lineup, the Broncos and their vaunted rush offense has averaged less than 75 yards a game. All of a sudden, the mystique of the zone running game is gone, and Mike Shanahan is left grasping at straws.

If it wasn’t obvious that one man out of eleven was so important, ask Shanahan. “Tom, I believe, is the best center to ever play the game,” notes Shanahan. And while Nalen should return for next year, why put off making his bust for Canton. This season has been a remarkable example of how important offensive line play can be in the NFL.

It also vividly demonstrates that no matter what people say about offensive and defensive schemes in the NFL, the players you’ve got in the system are more important. Schemes are important, but having the right personnel is vital.