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Why The NBA Playoffs Need To Be Changed

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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, SI.com has become my bastion of Thomsen musings.

In last Friday’s “Weekly Countdown” column, Thomsen dispensed long-overdue support of Tracy McGrady, disdain of the tragicomedic Clay Bennett, and why he (as we now see, mistakenly) picked the Dallas Mavericks to win it all. But as the capstone of last week’s commentary, Thomsen threw his weight behind something which, as a red-blooded American and thus a purveyor of equal opportunity, I simply cannot agree with: keeping the NBA playoff format.

Before I go any further, I guess it’s necessary to point out that, yes, there is a Blazers sign posted next to my door (if I had a dollar for everyone who asked what “Rip City” was…), but my stance toward restructuring the playoffs was in no way affected by my Portland partiality. Promise.

Therefore, since Thomsen so graciously gave us “5 Reasons to stick with the playoff format.” I’ll graciously counter each argument he made.

Thomsen: 5. The NBA can’t seed a single bracket.

So the MLB doesn’t do it. Or the NFL. Or (if anyone cares) the NHL. Then why, my friends, should the final partner of the Big Four deign to cobbling 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 — featuring teams dispersed evenly and without regard to conference or locale — is second to none. Only the 65 best teams are welcomed into the pearly gates of the Madness, and only the best 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, just that it should cull its best aspects and shape them into their own.

As Thomsen says, a slight tweaking of the schedule would need to be in order for the “equality” aspect of this to work. Stern has obviously shown that he is willing to shake things up – relocation into six divisions just went down a couple years ago, while murmurs of European/Russian expansion continue to bubble and fester.

Granted, pooling all the teams would be a reversal of the trend, but I never understood where this fixation with division winners came from. Okay, well, maybe I do -– more playoff games equate more money (which equates ticket prices that have gone up more than double-digit percentages in the last 10 years?) Baseball started the craze in 1995, and the other three soon followed suit, and 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 Utah Jazz — cede home-court advantage to a lower seed? As the series winds toward Game 6, the Utah-Houston matchup has easily become the most intriguing competition out West, but if this contest comes down to a deciding Game 7, the higher seed will play on the road, making about as much sense as Keanu Reeves being cast as Frank Sinatra.

The schedule 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? Call me an idealist, but I don’t buy it. Regional rivalries will always exist – look no further than the Brooklyn Dodgers-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.

Thomsen: 4. The tournament wouldn’t necessarily improve.

Thomsen penned this while the playoffs were in their infancy, so he didn’t have the fortune of hindsight now available. Beyond the obvious fact 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, 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 1, 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.

Thomsen: 3. The NBA playoffs need to be quirky.

They still would be. No one likes predictability in sports. Fans, sports writers, and Pete Rose, er, I mean, gamblers would all 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 11 of the last 12 NBA champions have been one of the top two of their conference. However, as we saw last year with the 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 (although an Atlanta upset would certainly make more noise than a Toronto one), but when a team has put for 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 skewed 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?

Thomsen: 2. The lottery is a consolation prize.

Okay, Thomsen may be correct on this one. At the end of the rainbow lies a nice little lottery pick for those unfortunate team 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 bat an eye.

Why? Because 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 last year – teams that obviously tanked as the season would down – and gave Portland and Seattle/Oklahoma City the top picks. Who is to say that the teams that came within a whisper of the playoffs won’t land the No. 1 pick once again? With Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, and Michael Beasley on the team, the Warriors would undoubtedly jettison into the playoffs, leaving yet another worthy West squad at home during May. As the lottery nears, it’s safe to say that, with Golden State and Portland in the running for a top pick, it can only get better.

Thomsen: 1. The complaining isn’t so bad.

Finally, after all is said and done, Thomsen’s No. 1 reason for keeping the status quo, the point that will surely sway any and all readers to his side, is… the strength of the fans’ complaints? Um. Okay. I know we’ve been called a nation of whiners, with lawsuits flying faster than accusations against Roger Clemens, but Thomsen wants us to be louder about it? That’s 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.

It’s time for David Stern to get his head 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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