First off, we're switching to I. Or, I'm switching to I, and today I'd like to tell you why the NBA's playoffs system needs to change.
The NFL has win or go home. College football only gives two teams a chance at winning the National Championship, and yeah, the BCS is corruptawfulridiculouswhatajoke, but the games themselves? Two teams fight for a bowl championship, so there's a lot of tension and urgency and all those things that make for the great sports moments. Baseball gets the 'series' model of postseason play right for two reasons; first, just eight teams have a shot at the World Series, and the first round, which in any sports just feels like a preamble, is short and sweet. One week into the postseason, four or so teams are usually remaining. Managers panic and get weird with their staffs, and the games are all exciting. Plus, we get to hear Joe Buck!!!
So those sports all trump the NBA in postseason play and format. To get a bit more comparative, hockey is the other profession sports that employs an identical postseason format to the NBA's. How, then, can I belittle one and not the other? Well, call it a cop out, but postseason hockey is just a different brand of sports. NBA players like to hit each other on open layups and lump together, exchanging dirty, disgraced looks while the refs step in to prevent any escalation. Oh, and inevitably Bruce Bowen does something to someone's nuts. Hockey has the same extracurricular brush-ups, only better: it's fun to see a goalie get ice in his face and to then watch as his Russian body guards step in and shove Sean Avery.
The difference is that in hockey, this translates to live play; the play gets more physical, the checks rack up, and within minutes, one team has an extra-man advantage, which in itself is another reason why hockey's just more fun to watch.
College basketball, meanwhile, is comparable to NBA in that, well, it's the same sport being played. But March Madness is unspeakably great. It transcends sports and enters the realm of oxygen--pretty tough to go without either of these things. Great analogy, I'd agree.
So in the five other major postseason formats, there's something appealing. And what does the NBA have to offer? Forty games in as many nights? Well, everyone knows NBA games either breakdown like this: they either over before they start, or they're only worth watching in the fourth quarter.
Couple that with these drawn-out seven game series in the first round (why! Why give sixteen teams a crack at a seven game series after they've played 82 games?) and there's hundreds of minutes or boring basketball. The Eastern Conference is a conference full of inept point guards and mediocre big men, and they all thrive in the kind of half-court sets nobody really enjoys unless LeBron gets enough space for a dunk.
(I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that fact that Kevin Harlan alleges that LBJ has "no regard for human life" because of a dunk in a basketball game. Uh, Kevin, did LeBron drive drunk on the way to the arena? Is there something you're failing to mention?)
Anyway, the NBA, believe it or not, is not a league of parity. The Western Conference had eight fifty-win teams this season, which is rare and special and creates a wide open field until you look at the whole picture and see that other half of the NBA's lawn had three teams with records at or below .500 playing to advance to the second round. In theory, I suppose the concept offers an exciting moneymaker: a wide-open field with the potential for a 7x8 divisional series (eight series all going seven games).
There isn't anything wrong with the format theoretically. In a league with more parity and better tempo, like hockey, I'd agree: the more games, the better. Unfortunately, the NBA's present brand of basketball offers a lot of slow-paced half-court sets, chock-full of Kurt Thomas jump shots (oh, wait, he doesn't even really leave his feet) and, well, 76 foul shots.
In some ways, this has a lot to do with the present state of basketball: three of the dominant teams in the league (Boston, Detroit and San Antonio) win by grinding it out defensively, controlling the glass and getting shots within their sets. The Jazz also play a pretty defensive offense in order to make basketball a game of possessions when, in Deron, AK, Harpring, Brewer, Miles, and even the likes of Okur and Millsap they have a balanced group of slashers and shooters who could all run the break. The Cavs don't quite, but they don't run much. The Magic try to get Howard working in the post and when he isn't, still try to run their offense inside-out by dropping Shard down.
But that doesn't mean these teams can't play exciting games. Despite all my criticism, I am excited by the prospect of a Pistons-Celtics series, as long as it's a continuation of the regular season match-ups the teams had. And I won't pretend that for every Kurt Thomas jump shot there aren't three brilliant plays by Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant. But NBA basketball isn't supposed to be in such a rut. There have always been stars, but now it's all the NBA can market. In the 90s, the Pacers weren't just Reggie Miller, the Knicks weren't just Patrick Ewing, the Jazz weren't just Karl Malone, and even the Bulls weren't just Jordan. Of course NBA superstars still have supporting casts, but the only thing enticing about watching these teams play these days is what those few stars might do. I'd say that for every exciting playoff game so far, there have been two, maybe even three games that I just haven't enjoyed watching.
Maybe it's just bad luck that this year, two of the best, and perhaps more importantly, most exciting offenses--Dallas and Phoenix--were eliminated early in the first round. Maybe Arenas has a healthy season and the Cavs-Wizards series doesn't bust. Maybe the Hawks play a memorable Game 7, maybe the Sixers steal a third game from Detroit and keep me on the edge of my seat, maybe the Suns take down the Spurs and it's anyone's game...
Surely, then, my argument would be moot. But right now I'm left with the feeling that the playoffs are marketed around superstars and overhyped to compensate for the fact that, well, the games aren't that great. And judging by how much ratings have been sinking since the 90s, I'm inclined to think the system needs reform.
Since we can all agree on that, don't mind if I do make my proposal.
It's laid out as follows:
1. Fewer Teams!
I know the Warriors took down the Mavs as the eighth seed just a year ago; I want twelve teams in the playoffs. Besides, as I'll show, under my proposal, they would have had the chance to make the playoffs, anyway. The fact is, there's no reason for any team below .500 to ever play in any sport's postseason. If you can't win more games than you lose, are you really contending for anything? No. Then why should the system pretend that you are? On average, fourteen or so teams finish at or above .500 in the NBA, at least lately. Look around: the other models don't even offer all of the teams above .500 a playoff berth. I want good series from the get-go. I saw the Lakers demolish the Nuggets without any excitement to it, same for what New Orleans did to Dallas. And after seeing the way each team finished out the series, I would argue that the only reason Philadelphia and Atlanta won games in their respective series is because, well, their opponents didn't feel challenged. And the playoffs should create a different environment, as KG could be heard saying yesterday. If twelve teams get the invite, the first round will be more intense, and the level of competition will be higher. And besides, I don't mind about fewer games...
2. Play fewer games!
Whose idea was it lengthen the first round? Terrible. Why? So a superstar can get injured? So an obvious sweep can be prolonged? It's the first round! Those sub-.500 teams that "earn" playoff appearances should be given the short end of the stick; win in five or don't, because you're not really good enough to be playing anyway. This also would do away with the apathy teams like Detroit displayed early on, as going down 2-1 would mean impending elimination, not the comfort of four games to put it together.
3. Do Away with the Conference Concept!
I don't care if the Eastern Conference is tremendously inferior today and it's short-sighted to think that will last. I want the best teams in the playoffs. The best twelve teams in the regular season should be the only teams playing in the playoffs. Is this absurd? To be fair, this would also require more inter-conference play, but big deal. Seed the team 1-12 and forget the artificial barrier of conference play. Good teams are good teams.
4. Play the Tiebreakers!
Nothing is more exciting in sports than the one-and-done threat. It creates the kind of urgency that brings March Madness-type intensity to any sport. If there is a tie for the twelfth best record, I bet the game played to resolve this tied, simply because it offers a unique opportunity to watch a loser-go-home NBA game, would draw better ratings than most playoff games. But that might not be saying much.