Time to fix the NBA playoffs
Jun. 13, 2007 | feedback
We'll remember the 2007 NBA playoffs for seven reasons:
1. LeBron's 48 Special.
2. Oakland's dynamic crowds and Dallas' collapse during the Warriors-Mavs series.
3. The Stoudemire/Diaw suspensions and subsequent fallout.
4. May 22.
5. The day Kobe went schizo on us.
6. The greatest Spurs team of the Duncan era; and ...
7. A dreadful Finals that was so predictable and plodding, fans were much more interested in trade talk and draft speculation.
Now, I've already written about 1 through 6 (see the corresponding links). But No. 7 has to be one of the weirdest subplots in recent sports history. We've reached a point with the NBA when its offseason somehow became more interesting than its actual season. I have no idea what this means. I have no idea how to interpret this information. For whatever reason, people are more interested in figuring out how the Suns will win the 2008 title over how the Spurs are winning the 2007 title. They're more interested in wondering what the Celtics will do with the No. 5 pick versus the Duncan/Parker battle for Finals MVP. They're more interested in figuring out how Cleveland will find help for LeBron in 2008 than the help he's getting right now.
Here's the easy explanation: Anyone who understands basketball realized by the 10-minute mark of Game 2 that Cleveland was completely outclassed in this series. (Not to toot my own horn, but I tried to warn you before Game 1. All right, I guess that was some tooting. But I did try to warn you.) By the time the Spurs extended their lead to the high 20s and Mike Breen started sobbing on-air that he had been stuck with so many lousy playoff games while Dick Freaking Stockton got to call the Mavs-Warriors series, the 2006-07 season, for all intent and purpose, had been rammed with a giant pitchfork like the one Jason Voorhees used in "Friday the 13th 3D." So it was natural for everyone to start thinking about the summer, free agency, the draft and everything else.
At the same time, we've reached a point that the off-court stuff has become consistently more fascinating. Tuesday morning, I wasn't sure whether Game 3 of the Spurs-Cavs series would be good, but I definitely knew hoopshype.com's NBA Rumors page would give me 20-25 minutes of enjoyable links and rumors. When a buddy from Boston called, we spent 20 seconds talking about the Finals and 20 minutes talking about the draft. Late Tuesday night, I realized that I'm between 10 and 200 times more interested in seeing how the Suns will handle their luxury tax problems than how Mike Brown will solve Cleveland's scoring problems before Game 4.
When you think about it, there's really no parallel to this phenomenon in sports or pop culture. Baseball peaks with the playoffs and World Series. Football peaks with the playoffs and Super Bowl. Golf peaks with the Masters and the U.S. Open. Television peaks with the season finale of a show. Movies peak when the movie is released. Music peaks when the album is released. So when does the NBA peak? Certainly, not during the Finals -- the ratings keep dropping and we've had two genuinely entertaining Finals (2000 and 2006) since MJ retired. Couldn't you make the case that it peaks at the end of June, on the days leading up to the draft, when there's a flurry of trade rumors, mock drafts, free agent rumors and everything else?
Apparently, we've reached the point in the NBA that it's more enjoyable to watch GMs tinker with their teams than watching those teams actually play. Isn't this a major, major, MAJOR problem? You could even call it a crisis, right? When writers and radio hosts brought up the topic of blowing up the playoffs and changing the seeding process, for once, it didn't seem like one of those radical/inane/unrealistic suggestions that was thrown out there just to get people talking during a dead sports week. We need to blow this thing up and start over. We do. The current playoff infrastructure has failed.
Here are the three biggest problems:
1. Once the league's reckless (repeat: reckless) expansion pushed the number of teams past the mid-20s, it became too easy for one conference to be stacked with elite teams. David Stern has argued multiple times that this stuff evens out over time, but clearly, that's not true. We've had much better teams in the West for nearly a full decade; in eight of the past 10 seasons, the best two teams played before the Finals, and in four of those seasons, they played before the conference finals. Um ... that's not a major flaw in the system?
We saw this imbalance from 1980 to 1989, when there were always 3-4 great teams in the East (the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks dominated the first half, then the Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Hawks and Cavs took turns in the second half) and the Lakers whupped up a different underdog in the Western finals almost every year. But here was the big difference: Because the league hadn't killed itself with expansion and there were so many salary cap loopholes, the Lakers were always really good. They went nine-deep with two franchise players (Magic and Kareem), an All-Star (Worthy), great role players and a rotating cast of accomplished veterans passing through for a ring. Because such a great/memorable/entertaining team was carrying the West in the '80s, nobody cared that the conferences were unbalanced. Now? We care. We don't have Magic's Lakers to salvage things.
2. Once upon a time, the NBA created conferences to cut down on everyone's travel -- not just to save expenses but to save the bodies of its players (all of whom were flying coach). Even now, it's a reasonable strategy for the regular season. But for the playoffs? Not nearly as reasonable. Everyone's flying around in charter jets, for God's sake! If we adopted the 2-3-2 format for every playoff series -- which should happen, anyway -- travel time and days would be cut back. So you can't play the "too much traveling" card. Not in 2007.
3. There's a rigid predictability to the playoffs every spring that we don't necessarily need. For instance, one of the reasons the Mavs-Warriors series was so much fun was because it came out of nowhere. Shouldn't we be searching for that "what a goofy matchup!" variable every spring? Why do we want to subject ourselves to a solid decade of Cavs-Bulls or Cavs-Heat series in the East? Isn't the unpredictability and randomness part of what makes March Madness so great?
Anyway, Warriors announcer Bob Fitzgerald made two radical proposals in his blog recently: One for realigning the conferences (not as pressing of an issue), and one for turning the playoffs into a straight 16-team bracket, almost like the Sweet 16 for March Madness, where seeds are awarded by win-loss records (so Dallas would have been No. 1 this spring, Phoenix would have been No. 2 and the Clips would have been No. 16). Please know that (A) I loved this idea and will always be ticked off that somebody else thought of it, and (B) John Hollinger beat me to the punch on Monday with his own version of how he'd handle the reseeding. Anyway, I chewed on the concept, chewed on it some more ... and decided that I'd tinker with Bob's renegade idea in the following ways:
• The top six teams from each conference still make the playoffs, only because we need the conference alignments to mean something.
• The team with the best record gets the No. 1 seed; the best team in the other conference gets the No. 2 seed. Every other seed is up for grabs. For this season, Dallas would have been No. 1, Detroit No. 2, Phoenix No. 3. and San Antonio No. 4. None of those teams could have played one another until the conference finals. Now that, my friends, is a good thing.
• For the No. 13-16 playoff spots, the league adopts my antitanking idea (from my April 23 magazine column):
"Shorten the regular season by four games, guarantee the top six seeds in each conference, then have a double-elimination tourney for the seventh and eighth seeds between the remaining ... teams. I suggest this for five reasons. First, it would be entertaining as hell. In fact, that's what we'll call it: the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament. Second, I'm pretty sure we could get it sponsored. Third, the top 12 teams get a reward: two weeks of rest while the tournament plays out.
"Fourth, a Cinderella squad could pull off some upsets, grab an eighth seed and win fans along the way. And fifth, with the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament giving everyone a chance, no team could tank down the stretch without insulting paying customers beyond repair."
Is there any downside for that idea? Lottery teams couldn't tank down the stretch and sideline their best players with dubious injuries. Playoff teams get two weeks of rest and practice so they'll be running on all cylinders in the playoffs. And if that's not enough, the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament would be entertaining as hell, wouldn't it? Then, when the real playoffs started, we'd have a wide-open, 16-team bracket in which (A) the top-four teams couldn't play each other until the conference finals, (B) the matchups would be completely unpredictable, and (C) the bracket even would lend itself to a few illegal office pools (with the Finals MVP as the tiebreaker).
In fact, I can see one reason why this would never happen, and only one: if David Stern and the rest of the NBA decision-makers were too stubborn to admit that we need a radical change. Well, we do. Anyone who doesn't believe this should be sentenced to watch the game-deciding play of Game 3 -- you know, the one during which Anderson Varejao thought it was a good idea to attempt an out-of-control spin move against one of the best defensive players of the past 15 years -- on an endless loop for the rest of the summer. Cleveland had no business being in the 2007 Finals. None. That's why I'm one of the 19 biggest basketball fans on the planet and, yet, I care more about the 2007 draft than the 2007 Finals.
We need to fix this. Immediately.