The NBA Playoffs Should Be Changed, Like It or Not

Casey MichelCorrespondent ISeptember 18, 2008

Contrary to what some may say out there, good sports writing still exists. Ian Thomsen, the balding Sports Illustrated sage—he and TrueHoop's Henry Abbott should form a club—can usually be counted on to donate his time toward sound NBA observations. His writing in the magazine is some of the finest out there, but, as I am a poor college student, has become my bastion of Thomsen musings.

So during an offseason whose highlight has—for me—been Rudy Fernandez in-your-eyeing Dwight Howard, I decided to check out Thomsen's archives, scouring the links for any tidbits that may help me in future discussion.

And help, they have. During one of his “Weekly Countdowns,” Thomsen dispensed interesting support of Tracy McGrady, disdain of the tragicomedic Clay Bennett, and explained why he—as we now see, mistakenly—picked the Mavs to win it all.

But as the capstone of last week’s commentary, Thomsen threw his weight behind something which, as a Gen-Y’er and thus a purveyor of equal opportunity, I simply cannot agree with—keeping the NBA playoff format.

As a matter of full disclosure, I guess it’s necessary to point out that, yes, there is a Blazers sign posted next to my door, but my stance toward restructuring the playoffs was in no way affected by my Portland partiality. Promise.

Therefore, since Thomsen so graciously gave us “five reasons to stick with the playoff format,” I will attempt to counter these arguments with a five-some of my own.

5. The NBA can seed a single bracket.

The MLB doesn’t do it. The NFL doesn’t do it. The NHL (if anyone still cares) doesn’t do it. So why, my friends, should the final participant in the Big Four deign to cobble all playoff teams into one bracket?

Two words: March Madness.

Only a fool or a liar would claim that the March Madness, with the possible exception of that lone play-in game, is a failure. From Selection Sunday to the Final Four, the excitement of this lone bracket is akin to the feeling Waterloo’s outcome brought Britain.

The teams are dispersed evenly, without regard to conference or—with the possible exception of the top seeds—locale. Only the 65 best teams are welcomed into the pearly gates of the Madness, and only the top will eventually find themselves lauded by Digger Phelps and Bob Knight.

No, I am not saying that the NBA should mimic all the attributes of the Greatest Spectacle on Earth—the less Dick Vitale, the better for my eardrums. I'm just saying that The Administration should cull March Madness' best aspects and apply them to NBA playoffs.

As Thomsen says, a slight tweaking of the schedule would need to happen in order for the “equality” aspect of this to work. Stern has obviously shown that he is willing to shake things up—relocating into six divisions just went down a couple years ago, murmurs of European/Russian expansion continue to bubble and fester, and the guy approved a team moving from a top-15 market to—and I still can't believe this is true—Oklahoma.

Granted, pooling all the teams would be a reversal of current trends, but I never understood where this fixation with division winners came from. Ok, well, maybe I do—more playoff games equate more money, especially ticket prices that have gone up by more than double-digit percentages in the last 10 years.

Baseball started the craze in 1995, and the other three soon followed suit.  Before you know it, Atlantic Division Champions banners joined the rafters alongside the plethora of World Champion flags in Boston Garden.

But if I could use the 2008 playoffs as Example A, the divisional structure has created some strange, Twilight Zone-esque situations. What kind of world is it where a higher seed—the Jazz—cedes home-court advantage to a lower seed?

As the first-round series wound toward Game Six, the Utah-Houston matchup had easily become the most intriguing competition out West—if only because Houston would have hosted the deciding Game Seven. Ian, this makes about as much sense as John McCain claiming he invented the BlackBerry, doesn't it?

The schedule of equality would no longer be weighted, as every team would face the other, say, three times, for a grand total of 87 games. Thomsen declares this method would never work because, among other reasons, it would “ruin any hope of creating divisional or regional rivalries.”

Really? If San Antonio and Dallas didn’t meet as often, that rivalry would go the way of the telegraph? And are you saying that the whims of carpetbaggers are suffice to ruining the I-5 and potential Oden-Durant rivalries, but a sense of fairness isn't?

Call me an idealist, but I don’t buy it. Regional rivalries will always exist—look no further than the NL's Brooklyn Dodgers' and the AL's New York Yankees' fights of yesteryear for proof that a glut of regular season meetings don’t mean squat.

And don’t give me this “travel sucks” baloney. This isn’t the post-Depression 1930s, and you are not the Boston Red Sox catching the 9:30 train to St. Louis for a night game with the Browns.

It is now the 21st century, a time in which a phone can turn into a TV and anything is just a click away. As Tony Stark said in Iron Man, the charter flights will wait on those flying, not vice versa, so quit your whining.

4. There's no proof—none whatsoever—that equality seeding would ruin matchups.

Thomsen penned this article while the playoffs were in their infancy, so he didn’t have the fortune of hindsight now available. Beyond the claim that, based solely on record, Golden State and Portland would have put up better fights than Atlanta and Philadelphia, Thomsen’s claims of series being “better” or “worse” is both trivial and irrational.

For example, he says that New Orleans vs. Cleveland would have been “worse” than Cleveland-Washington or New Orleans-Dallas. I'm not a betting man, but I can guarantee no one would take a bathroom break in New Orleans Arena while LeBron James went toe-to-toe with CP3.

And how did that Phoenix-San Antonio "whoever-wins-this-series-will-win-the-West" struggle turn out? With the exception of the ESPN Classic-worthy Game One, the Suns turned out to be terribly over-hyped, and Steve Nash’s inability to properly dish the ball meant that the series was sealed long before it was over.

Thomsen’s arbitrary opinions are null and void, and fail to count on upstarts—like Philadelphia and Atlanta—putting up a legitimate fight.

3. The NBA playoffs will still be “quirky," but no longer unfair.

No one likes predictability in sports. Fans, sports writers, and Pete Rose et al. would desert the realm of sports if Goliath always stomped on David. Fortunately, the games’ intangible and capricious nature means that no one—besides the 1919 Black Sox—knows what the coda of the show will entail.

Thomsen is right in saying that “the NBA puts on the purest tournament of the four major leagues”—but only in the sense that 12 of the last 13 NBA champions have been one of the top two of their conference. However, as we saw in 2007 with Baron’s beard-led Warriors, anything can happen come postseason.

The “quirky” factor of the NBA will remain if the most deserving teams are let into the playoffs, but when a team has put forward the will, fortitude, and desire through 82 grueling games, only to see its championship hopes go up in flames due to a line-in-the-sand setup, something does not sit well.

Since “the most qualified teams usually advance through the playoffs because that’s how the best-of-seven series format works in the NBA,” why would it be so terrible to actually give everyone a fair shot?

2. The lottery is a consolation prize, sure—but only for a couple teams.

Ok, Thomsen may be correct on this one. At the end of the rainbow lies a nice little lottery pick for those unfortunate teams whose bubbles burst after 82 games. But, beyond the benefits for those one or two teams, how does this make the league better in its current format?

When I was but a middle-schooler, a mid-NBA-season Sports Illustrated article ran chronicling the rise of the West (for some reason they decided to include a piece on Bonzi Wells, but that’s beside the point). It’s not that hard to imagine a lazy SI editor recycling the story, replacing a couple names here and there, and not worrying that the fans would even bat an eye.

Why? Because, despite the Danny Ainge's pickpocketing of former teammate Kevin McHale, the West is more dominant than its ever been, with nearly nine 50-plus win teams. And who knows how many the Blazers would have gotten with Greg Oden holding down the post?

The NFL and MLB have it right in this department, rewarding the worst teams with the best picks. But karma had its way with both Memphis and Boston in 2007—teams that obviously tanked as the season would down—and gave Portland and Seattle/Oklahoma City the top picks (although it's debatable Miami would have picked Derrick Rose during the 2008 draft).

But as the 2007-08 regular season entered its final throes, who could have said the teams that came within a whisper of the playoffs wouldn't have landed the No. 1 pick once again?  With Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, and Michael Beasley on the team, the Warriors would undoubtedly rocket into the playoffs, leaving yet another worthy West squad at home during May.

Chicago, with a 1.7 percent chance of earning the pole position, took on the role of spoiler—but those minuscule odds could have just as easily gone toward the West.

1. The complaining from fans, media, etc. is completely justifiable.

Finally, after all is said and done, Thomsen’s No. 1 reason for keeping the current format, the point that will surely sway any and all readers to his side, is—the strength of the fans’ complaints?

Ummm...that's it?

Ok. I know we’ve been called a nation of whiners (thanks, McCain's economic adviser!), but Thomsen wants us to be louder about it?

This final “argument” is actually just rehashed points from earlier bullets, with Thomsen claiming, “It's better to hear from passionate and occasionally enraged fans about the current system than to imagine the ‘improved’ system that would take its place.” Nothing concrete here—no suggestions, postulations, or ideas for why the playoff format should not represent equality.

The regular season wouldn’t become “non-descript”—at least not anymore than it already is—and to call the potential first-round matchups less compelling is both arbitrary and, as evidenced by the lackluster contests out West, simply not true.

As the 2008-09 season comes to fruition, it’s time for David Stern to get his head out of Clay Bennett’s, um, grip (no need for bad words here) and finally step up for the good of the game.


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