Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wake Me Up in a Month

Coming up tonight, on TNT: Overmatched Team A tries to steal a playoff game from Juggernaut Team B! And if they do so, don't miss the next 6 months, during which Team A will try to sell its fanbase on the idea that a 5-game playoff loss is a successful season! Be sure to treat yourself to this compelling melodrama, the only thing more viewer-enticing than Charles Barkley doing a Sodoku puzzle!

I've tried. I've tried and tried and tried and tried. I've picked a few teams I wanted to root for and against. I've set aside time to watch games. I've even gambled on a game or two (note to the Blazers: putting a hand in a guy's face is not only allowed, but it may actually make your opponent's shot more difficult. Try it sometime.). But I just can't get into the NBA Playoffs until the Conference Finals at the earliest.

With rare exception, the NBA's first two playoff rounds are brutal. When you think "playoffs" in general, you think of a heightened level of competition and intensity that is not found in the regular season very frequently. You think of hot underdog teams making the odds-on favorites sweat. The NHL, NFL, and MLB deliver on this more often than not. The NBA? Eh, not quite.

Why? Well, for starters, too many teams make the postseason. When a league sends more than half (16 out of 30) of its teams to the playoffs, it's begging for mediocrity. For instance, the Indiana Pacers, for all their pluck and relative likability, wedged themselves in as the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference with a 37-45 record. Give me a break. That's like a 73-win baseball team playing in October. Now, I know I'm walking right into it because the NFL saw a 7-9 playoff team just last season, but this sort of thing happens almost every year in the NBA, while the 2010 Seahawks were the first sub-.500 NFL team to ever make the playoffs in a full 16 game season.

Couple the overload of teams with the fact that the first round is best-of-7, and you've reduced basically the first two weeks of the postseason to a formality. You know what else makes the other three major sports' playoffs great? It's the fact that if you're in it, you've got a chance to win it. Baseball only sends 4 teams per league and is possibly the ultimate playoff crapshoot. The NFL has seen two #6 seeds in the past six seasons win the Super Bowl, as well as several other #6 seeds reach the AFC or NFC Championship in the past decade. The NHL playoffs routinely see upsets and edge-of-your-seat Cinderella runs, thanks many times to the all-powerful "hot goalie" equalizer. Equalizers are hard to come by in basketball. The best-of-5 opening round used to make for some compelling series - who doesn't remember the image of Dikembe Mutombo after his 8th-seeded Nuggets stunned the Sonics in 1994? Unfortunately, since playoff gates, parking, and concession sales are too much to pass up, all rounds are now best-of-7. Not only does the 7-game format make it significantly harder on the underdog, but the multiple off days between games are a momentum-killer in addition to making the series take for-ev-er. Of course, it is possible to get a big upset (see the 2007 Warriors-Mavericks first round) or a terrifically played series (i.e. the 2009 Bulls-Celtics series that I linked to previously), but memorable moments in the NBA's early rounds are much, much scarcer than those in the other sports.

What you need to win 16 postseason games in the NBA is three or more elite players and/or a great defense. So that boils it down to maybe 4-5 teams that have a legitimate chance to be the ones standing at the end in mid-June. In about half of these early series, the favored team only needs to shift it into high gear when absolutely necessary. Defense is optional. The opening round is turned into more of a tune-up than anything else, almost like a top college football team opening its regular season with a small-conference or FCS school. You know how baseball has extended spring training for injured players and/or slow-to-develop minor leaguers? More often than not, the first round of the NBA Playoffs is just an extended regular season.

And those are just the on-court issues. Arguably the least bearable element of the NBA Playoffs is the coverage. TV and radio heads go blue in the face breaking down these series, which I suppose is understandable. What is bothersome is a channel like ESPN constantly pumping up its own NBA coverage in an attempt to boost ratings for the games that it carries. I don't need Sportscenter cutting away to the side studio every 6 minutes to pore over a mid-April playoff game where one team is happy just to be there. I also don't need Mike and Mike, who sometimes provide a listenable morning radio program, being force-fed for 9 weeks a guest list of stiffs like Tim Legler, Jamal Mashburn, and occasionally even Dick Vitale, all of whom -you guessed it- studio analysts at ESPN. The hosts have a comfortable, if not cliché, dynamic to their show. Mike Golic plays very well the role of "ex-lineman who is the butt of jokes about being fat and dumb," while Mike Greenberg holds his own as the "wimpy, somewhat dorky lifelong fan who could never really make it onto the field." It's unfortunate to see them constantly being put out of their element by endlessly pining over a sport they don't know that well, all seemingly under the direction of the mother ship.

Besides the relative pointlessness of some of the early round games, there is also a monotone nature to a basketball playoff series that makes it excruciating to break down game-in and game-out. In football, games are once a week, so opponents, locations, and conditions are constantly changing. In baseball, every game is its own entity - the pitchers are different every night (which often brings about significant lineup shifting), and the parks provide unique dimensions, weather conditions, and even rule changes (i.e. the DH or no-DH in the World Series). Leaving hockey aside (since we're not clubbed over the head with hockey coverage in this country), football and baseball warrant the ad-nauseam playoff talk. Basketball? You're often looking at the same starting fives night after night, playing in standardized atmospheres (now that the Boston Garden and its famed dead spots on the floor are long gone) where most of the time the only variable is home-court advantage. Is there an interesting dynamic to see how teams may approach defending and attacking each other differently on a game-to-game basis? Sure there is, but not to a level that justifies the skull-numbing NBA playoff coverage from all angles.

The long and the short of it is that bigger is not always better. The NBA appears to be learning this lesson now. I've written on this topic before. Too many big guaranteed contracts, too many teams, too many playoff teams, and in turn too many playoff rounds and too many playoff games have watered down the product immensely. The league's labor situation after this season will likely end up even more dicey than that of the NFL. Now, I don't want to full-on blast the NBA, because at its best it's a great product. In recent years the NBA adopted the slogan "Where Amazing Happens." Well, amazing does happen. But you've got to wait a month or so first.


  1. Just an FYI The Giants were a 5 seed. Good article though.

  2. I know the Giants were a 5-seed in '07. The Redskins were the 6 that year and lost to Seattle in the Wild Card round. But the Packers were a 6-seed this past year and the '05 Steelers were a 6-seed when they beat Seattle in Super Bowl XL. The '08 Eagles and '09 Jets made their respective Conference Championship games as 6-seeds, and that's just off the top of my head, so my point is substantiated. Thanks for reading.