Monday, March 31, 2008
The best NBA season since they sported these fashionable wears
If you know me as a sports fan, you know my allegiances lie with the Red Wings and Lions first, then the Cubs and Tigers followed probably last by the Pistons. I suppose this is odd for two reasons: 1) I hate the Bulls and their fans more than any other opposing team in any of the four major sports and 2) no Cubs, Red Wings or Lions loss caused me to gravity test a cinder block like the Pistons double-overtime loss to the Nets in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in 2004 did - although a poor Taboo card holder experienced my wrath during Game 5 of the 2006 World Series. Regardless, I get less worked up about the Pistons and watch fewer of their games and NBA games in general than any other sport. I simply care less - far less - about the NBA than any of the other sports. So remember that when I say this: the season's NBA regular season has been more compelling than any other regular season for any sport that I can remember in my life time. Despite the disheartening - if not unsurprising - revelation last summer that referee Tim Donaghy had unsavory and compromising relationships with gamblers, the NBA has had a series of remarkable luck and great play since that dark day last June. Of the three "scandals" that broke last summer - Bonds and the home run chase, Vick and Bad Newz Kennels, and Donaghy - the mess Donaghy left was most damaging because it involved the very credibility of its sport. I'd recommend this Bill Simmons' column recounting its impact.
But Donaghy's indiscretions have thankfully been blurred by a Pax Association - the Rockets, LeBron Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, the 76ers, Deron Williams, the Lakers, the compelling race in the Western Conference, and the incredible shift of talent west of the Mississippi as Pau Gasol, Shaq, Jason Kidd, and Kyle Korver. As of Monday, 1.5 games separated the top five seeds in the West, while just 5.5 games lie between the top of the conference and the ninth, no-playoff-invitation place. Denver, Dallas and Golden State are tied at 5.5 games back and fill spots 7 through 9 respectively. The race is fluid, dynamic, and exciting. I have deliberately set aside more time this season to watch NBA games than I can remember before and that is almost entirely due to the compelling story lines and exciting race out West. The games matter more and there is a heightened sense of urgency to maintain one's level of play instead of shutting in down for 3/4 of the season, waiting until the playoffs to turn it on. That is what makes it great live drama. Now the NBA has had a few issues this year - the Sonics situation is inexcusable, the Knicks are still an unbelievable embarrassment, the Heat are pretty awful, and the race for the final playoff spot in the East involves four "teams" who are more than ten games under .500. I suppose it is an example of the "best of times/worst of times" dichotomy, but things are pretty good in Stern-ville right now. But here's a suggestion for making the best of times better.
Allow only 6 teams per conference in the playoffs
I know, i know...keeping 8 teams per conference is more financially lucrative, keeps people in jobs, increases interest in cities who are in the race, and theoretically insulates teams from tanking it for the lottery if they have a shot at the playoffs. Ideally the NBA would lower the amount of games, increasing the importance of each game. This is one reason why the NFL works so well; the paucity of NFL games adds to their importance. The importance of each NFL game equals 5 NBA/NHL games and 10 MLB games. Ideally this ratio would be lower for NBA games, but scaling back on the schedule isn't likely. So the other option/challenge is to make the 82 games that are played more important. The easiest way to do this is to cut the number of playoff teams. Rarely are there seasons like this where an entire conference's standings are in flux on what seems to be a nightly basis. By cutting down on the number of playoff teams, that decreases the margin of error and heightens their sense of urgency. This would not only increase interest in the race for the sixth spot, but a six-team per conference format would mean that the top two seeds would have a first round bye as three would play six and four would square off versus five in a best-of-five opening round. Races for the top two spots would insure that the conference's top teams would not coast it into the playoffs, giving fans more to watch than the clowns in the 6-8 seeds battle it out for the final playoff spot. I don't see one reason why this wouldn't accomplish two huge goals: increase the importance of games and make the race to the playoffs more exciting. It would also make the unending NBA playoff season shorter. Amen to that.
Plus, does it really benefit anyone that 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs? Doesn't 12 of 30 seem like a better and more deserving ratio? Baseball lets in 8 of 30 teams and the wild card has been a huge success. Football lets 12 of 30 in and I don't think anyone argues that their system is flawed or unjust. While there have been some great stories from 8 seeds in basketball (Warriors, Nuggets, Knicks), those are few and far between. Most of the time these teams are not championship caliber and only enter into the playoffs to disrupt teams who have spent a season building to where they have gotten to. If they were leaving out championship caliber teams, then I wouldn't be encouraging the reduction to six. But it has been proven that the 7th and 8th seeds are nothing but undeserving pests. Get rid of them and I think most everyone benefits, including the quality of games throughout the regular season. Plus, if crappy coaches and GMs jobs are saved by making the playoffs even though the teams have no real hope of increasing their team's success ceiling in the next couple of years, shouldn't that change be made anyway? Why should the mirage of a playoff birth obscure miserable talent development and execution?
Again, if you aren't going to reduce the overall number of games, then you need to figure out a way to make the games more important. I have little doubt that this would work.
One smaller suggestion (and I'm not the first that has called for this), but they need to reseed the playoffs. The NHL does this and so does the NFL and both have found great success(!) - and even sexy time - with it. The NBA has recently seen its best playoff match-ups betrayed by their unyielding system. Last year the marque Suns-Spurs series was played in the conference semi-finals rather than the finals while two lower seeds - the Jazz and Warriors - battled it out on the bottom half of the bracket. This could have easily been avoided if a policy of reseeding had been in place and if such an egregious example could not persuade the NBA to change its policy, I'm not sure what will. But I think it needs to happen.
Other thoughts to this other than suggesting that they don't assign Donaghy any more games in the most important playoff series of the year?