I used to think March Madness was the best thing in sports. Then, for a while, in my late 20s while trying to seem worldly, I walked around spouting the grandeur of the World Cup.
Now, I have come to my senses; nothing in the sporting world tops the NBA playoffs—and it's largely because of the seven-game series.
It's so pure.
In the NBA, the team that wins the championship is truly an undisputed champion. I've watched every finals since at least 1987, and I can't recall anyone sensible ever arguing that a non-victor was the league's best team.
The 2004 playoffs might be the most recent outlier, when the running-on-fumes Shaq/Kobe dynasty lost the best of an old Karl Malone to a knee injury and stumbled against a Detroit Pistons team that, at the time, didn't seem historically impressive.
Otherwise, there are few debates.
Could the 2010 Boston Celtics have beaten the Los Angeles Lakers had Kendrick Perkins not suffered a torn groin?
Could the 1994 New York Knicks have beaten Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets if John Starks didn't shoot 2-of-18 in Game 7?
Would the 1988 Pistons have prevented Magic Johnson from winning his fifth title if Isiah Thomas didn't sprain his ankle in Game 6?
For the most part, however, the validity of these question marks have eroded with time. And this trickles down to the earlier rounds of the playoffs as well.
There are outliers.
When the Phoenix Suns lost several key cogs (Amar'e Stoudemire, Boris Diaw) to suspension in 2007, after they illegally left the bench when Robert Horry body checked Steve Nash, they may have advanced past the San Antonio Spurs, which went on to win the championship.
Game 6 between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers in 2002 will forever be tainted by the specter of disgraced official Tim Donaghy's allegations of referee manipulation.
Two years earlier, many argued that the Portland Trail Blazers, which lost to the Lakers in seven games after an epic fourth-quarter collapse, were the league's best team.
There will always be some debate.
Still, injuries and controversy aside, there are very few instances when a series doesn't seem "settled" after seven games. The league could potentially seek to eliminate all doubt and extend series to nine games or eleven. But that would only belabor the point and drag out the postseason even longer than the 14 months is already seems to last each year.
Which brings us to the major downside of the seven-game series: It kills drama.
The main reason that March Madness and the NFL postseason are Americans' most-revered playoff systems is because they are unpredictable.
Ultimately, one of the favorites usually wins the championship, but there are several big-time upsets every year that seem like they may alter the title landscape. Cinderella trips to the Elite Eight and wild card teams winning the Super Bowl have become almost expected.
This rarely happens in the NBA.
There are no North Carolina State-esque runs to the title.
The closest equivalent in recent memory is probably the Orlando Magic's run to the finals in 2009. That was a 59-win No. 3 seed "coming out of nowhere" to beat the the East's two top teams, the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers (a team that was revealed to be rather flawed several times) and the second-place Boston Celtics (which lost Kevin Garnett to injury). In retrospect, it doesn't seem at all surprising, and it wasn't an unforeseeable upset even at the time.
There was also the 2007 "We Believe" Golden State Warriors upset of the number-one seed Dallas Mavericks. It came out of nowhere. It was historic and thrilling. But those Warriors didn't even make it to the conference finals. It was a one-round aberration, not the start of an legendary run by an upstart team of underdogs.
By and large, there are no shockers.
Instead, the playoffs—while full of highlights, individual-player intrigue and sensational games—often seem like an exercise in watching inevitability unfold. They largely just prove what we already know.
Eighty-two games is a large sample size; there are rarely more than three or four teams with any real title hopes when the regular season ends. Two months later, one of those few (and often the favorite) hoist the banner.
This also means that the NBA playoffs rarely features the epic individual runs that we see in the NCAA tournament. The relative unknowns rising out of relative obscurity to stardom—Kemba Walker, Miles Simon, Toby Bailey, John Wallace—rarely exist in the pro world.
The world already knows the leading men in the NBA.
Dirk Nowitzki's unbelievable run in 2011 may be the closest individual rise we have seen in the past 20 years—and he had already been named league MVP four years earlier.
If the NBA shortened all series to three games, or even one game, there would be a lot more excitement. Top seeds would get bounced in the first round, and teams like this year's Golden State Warriors—or the We Believe Warriors of 2007—could win a ring.
It would get more sports fans talking. It would add unpredictability. It could probably make the NBA a ton of money while rising the sport's popularity among the general public.
That's all well and good, but why try to fix what's not broken?
The league is unique in its ability to almost always produce an undisputed champion. In terms of structure, that is its claim to fame.
The large, non-NBA-watching segment of the sports fan community might not often associate that word with the Association. But if the goal of sports is to decide which team is the best, then there isn't a league in U.S. sports that comes close to matching the NBA.
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