Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The NBA Playoffs: Where Nothing Really Happens.

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.


Philip said...

The NBA is not the same game as NCAA. Same sport, yes; but different game entirely. It ought to be obvious. That you miss this, coupled with the following head-scratching and erroneous declaration: "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.", leads to the conclusion that you, sir, are not actually a fan of the NBA.

The rant against marketing stars is absurd. You're claiming other sports don't do this? Get serious. NFL is the worst offender. The NBA right now has the best, brightest, youngest, and importantly, relatively cleanest, group of players/stars it has seen in years. Why wouldn't they market them? Good things are happening - did you catch any of the overwhelmingly positive All Star weekend in New Orleans?

A couple corrections: the Mavericks do not have one of the most exciting offenses in the league. They grind it out boringly. That's the reason Kidd doesn't work there, the pieces aren't in place to run an effective break.

NFL teams can and do make the playoffs with sub-.500 records.

All that said, I agree with your overall point. Two less teams per conference would be fine, I guess. One less, with the 6 and 7 seeds playing for the final spot, would be even better. Doing away with conferences is not a good idea. All sports have conferences/leagues/divisions for good reasons. Among them, they help facilitate travel logistics (pragmatic) and rivalries. It makes more sense to instead alter the seeding within conferences, or even re-seed after the first round.

Adam said...

I echo most of what philip said, although as far as I know, the NFL has not had a team with a losing record in the playoffs in recent memory (although several 8-8 teams).

The solution, in my opinion, is to add 4 games to the regular season schedule so that you can play a true round-robin in your Conference. This would let us eliminate the 5-team Divisions, and just have two 15-team Conferences (4 games against 14 Conference opponents (56 games) plus 2 games against 15 opposite Conference opponents (30 games) = 86 games). Then, you would just take the top 8 records in each Conference. As philip suggested, they ought to re-seed within each Conference after the 1st round. Although this year that wouldn't have changed anything, it would give the fans of every series a "stake" in the outcome of all the other same-Conference series (e.g., Detroit fans would have been more interested in an Atlanta victory since it meant they would get Atlanta instead of Orlando in the SFs).

El Angelo said...

I'm a casual basketball fan. Give me a single reason to watch a regular season NBA game, when over half the teams advance to the postseason and the regular season lasts 5 months.

ajh said...

Philip- your first two points are fair enough in that they attack what is probably an exaggerated amount of cynicism. But I'd still contend that NBA games are usually monotonous outside of the fourth quarter save for a few exciting plays, and they tend to unfold predictably. I guess I just long for comebacks or 40-point quarters.

I don't pretend that the level of basketball and style of play in college parallels the NBA's game. I understand why the press, the 1-3-1 and the undersized lineup generally fails in the NBA. I was comparing the postseason format for each, and didn't find it necessary to make a distinction between the type of basketball being played.

As far as marketing stars, why don't I hear about the 64 win Celtics? Or the surprise Hornets and Lakers? The fact that one of the best home teams in league history is playing right now doesn't go marketed. Instead, I'm seeing the faces of Baron Davis, Ray Allen and Ben Wallace in advertisements. I'd say that's a misguided personality-oriented marketing technique. And if you think the NFL is guilty of it, well, their players don't get to show their faces much, so I'd say it's fair enough if they compensate through advertising.

And yeah, the All-Star weekend was a big bounce-back considering last year's disaster. I'm not going to pretend this isn't a time when the league is flooded with fresh talent that makes the games more exciting. This is a great time for the NBA. I don't reject that. I take objection to the clutter of undeserving playoff teams, a corrupt system and marketing methods to compensate. Surely, the league knows some of its series were a bit boring, and I was pointing out that the marketing reflects this; why do the playoffs feature boring series that are completely mistakable for regular season play.

As for the Mavs, well, fair enough. I enjoy teams with scorers, I guess, but I know their transition game has deteriorated and they basically resort to passing the ball around the perimeter for an open shot and iso sets.

Perhaps my point about the NFL should've been used to convey how artificial division play is. But in the NFL, schedules are weighted towards divisional play more than conference play, which is why an 8-8 division winner can't really be compared to a 41-41 playoff team. 8-8 teams have made the playoffs as Wild Card seeds, true, but that's in a 12-team tournament based on a 16 game series. Essentially, that happens. But the NBA has such a big field over such a long season that features so many games. Why should a 48-34 team get the short end of the stick for playing in the better conference? They should be rewarded for this.

Anyway, this is one of my first entries, and I'd assume you were lead here from Deadspin, so I really appreciate the feedback. I am learning about the process, basically, and got a bit cynical and focused in on attacks on the state of the NBA without considering it as part of the professional sports entity as a whole (including college football+basketball because of the size of their markets and their comparable popularity).

Philip said...

I guess if you need a reason to watch the regular season, then you just shouldn't bother with it. I'm not trying to be exclusive or elitist here, honestly. I just enjoy watching the NBA, playoffs or not. A regular season game gives me the same experience of picking up nuances, learning players' games and coaching styles, enjoying competitive matchups, etc. If you only want to watch to see who wins the title, that's fine. You are a casual fan. I am that way with baseball and hockey. No shame.

ajh said...

I don't want to mislead you. I love the NBA, I'm an avid fan of the sport and an aspiring coach of sorts. If I were approaching it from the angle of whether or not I like basketball/regular ssn play/the playoffs, this would be completely different. I'm exploring the flaws of the NBA's playoffs system one of its failings, I feel, is that it doesn't feature much of an improvement in play in some first-round series.

I do think the NBA needs to adjust its marketing and its playoff dynamic to draw in casual fans like el angelo, and I don't think the first-round series do any justice to a) what's to come and b) the level of competition the NBA playoffs use to have from the get-go. I think altering the system is the right way to fix this.

Like you say, there's nothing wrong with being a casual. But my approach is twofold--why the casual fan can't enjoy the NBA, and why the NBA can't attract the casual fan. I do think there's a distinction between those two. I am trying to represent an attitude I find pretty common among casual NBA fans--that the games don't meet expectations of postseason tournament play, and, as an avid fan of the sport of basketball and the NBA, I want to see this changed.

Philip said...

AJH - sorry, the last comment wasn't intended for you, it was for el angelo. Your first response was long and well-considered, I just haven't had the time to reply yet. I will shortly. I'm glad you are appreciating the discussion.

ajh said...

No problem. I figure why not be active in response, seeing as my goal is to build a readership and an active discussion section can only help.

Brave Sir Robin said...

First: Hearing Joe Buck is never a good thing, unless it's him screaming as he's devoured by wild dogs.

Further corrections: Baron Davis is in an ad for Don't Mess With Zohan, not a playoff commercial. The NBA can't be criticized for its players doing sponsorship deals on the sides.

Also, when was Ben Wallace last a star? Hell, Oakley is a bigger celebrity than Wallace is at this point. The fact that they're using Wallace in the ad means that they're supporting the idea of marketing the teams (especially since Ben Wallace is basically the walking dead at this point in his career and sucks).

As for the mid 90s teams, they absolutely got marketed as being one with their stars. That goes back to the 80s (Bird/Magic! Kareem/McHale! It's the NBA Finals!)

Yeah, there were well-known seconds on all those teams you mentioned (Pippen, Smits, we'll go with Oakley) not to mention that Malone wasn't even the best player on his team (HELLLLO John Stockton).

All year long we were bombarded with "The Celtics are an amazing home team." You're not hearing about that now because they can't win on the road, which is a much bigger story for the playoffs since they're a 1 seed.

As for the other teams, you can't be serious that you haven't heard about the surprise Lakers and Hornets. You don't pay attention if you haven't had that drilled into your skull over the past couple months.

As for your reforms, doing away with Conferences is a good and necessary one. The five game first round actually helps the lower seed since it can surprise the upper seed. That's part of the reason the expanded the series (not to mention the extra money).

Anonymous said...

First off, Chris Paul is the best player in any sport to do anything ever.
Secondly, Wilson Chandler is underrated.

ajh said...

You make my points for me. Ben Wallace isn't a star, it's true. So why does the advertising feature him? The point is that the league is trying to market personalities and faces, and it's completely ineffective to market the likes of Allen, Wallace and Davis. Also, the Davis advertisement is an NBA advertisement, I'm fairly certain, in collaboration with the NBA.

The Joe Buck line, I thought, was an obvious joke. So we're on the same page there.

And for teams being marketed with their stars, well, it's fine to market two great match-ups in a series...that's not the same having Ben Wallace and Ray Allen utter the same lines in a commercial featuring half their faces.

And I expected to be called out on not hearing enough about LA & NO. My point there is that the ads are about Kobe and Paul, the MVP talk is Kobe and Paul, and who's mentioning the teams? Well, the broadcasters do. The ESPN figureheads do. Shoot, Kobe did when he won MVP. But the ads are Kobe's face and Paul's face.

Nielsen said...

I think the combined word count of your first four posts is greater than mine through 187. But, you know, I let the music speak for itself, or something. Look forward to reading this through summer. Or until you start writing about baseball.

Nielsen said...

Oh, and when we're living together, I will use this space to voice personal complaints.

Canucklehead said...

Another HUGE problem with the NBA playoffs is home court advantage. At least in the NHL, there have been teams who come back from 3-1 down or 0-2 down and can win in the other team's rink.

The NBA playoffs are too predictable. Home team goes up 2-0 meaning the underdog has to win four straight now as Game 7s won by the road team are so few and far between with the NBA.