Five Tool Tool is calling this the worst NBA season ever. Bill Simmons claims that the NBA has reached the point where fans want to forgo the playoffs in favor of the off season. John Hollinger calls the NBA Finals a joke. Can we blame them? The regular season featured injuries to many of the league’s best players, taking entire teams out of contention. Over the course of the regular season, many of the best teams (and Lebron James) dogged it to conserve energy for the playoffs. For the last few months of the season, Celtics, Bucks, and Grizzlies fans had to wittiness tanking, which is one of the biggest disgraces to sports. We then had an NBA playoffs that climaxed in the first round and was dominated by talk of conspiracy and legal-like rigidity on the part of the league office. In the Finals, we have an anti-climatic battle in which the league’s best team has successfully neutralized the playoff’s biggest sell. Finally, we have a champion so abhorred that major blogs spend more time figuring out what makes them boring than trying to explain what makes them great. Clearly, the NBA needs fixing.
There is no single issue with the league. Injuries, for example, had a lot to do with dumb luck, and a bit to do with the existence of international competition. Another issue is the fact that the regular season is just too long, individual games mean little compared with the energy one can save for the playoffs, and while this has always been an issue, we noticed it more this season because of all the league’s other issues. Tanking, as I said, is one of the biggest travesties in sports. We pay these men millions of dollars for the blood, sweat, and tears that comes with competition, and any system that rewards losing means that we are asking our athletes to give us less than their best. However, we got a bit of a temporary fix when the Celtics, Bucks, and Grizzlies all go their comeuppance in the lottery. Finally, events such as the Spurs/Suns series and the incredibly large amounts of flagrant foul calls that were, lets face it, pussy calls, shed light on two other issues. First of all, the league’s attempt to create and maintain a polished image has diminished the quality of physical play. The result is a set of rules that cuts down on some of the very elements that used to give playoffs their intensity: Physical confrontation within the confines of the game. Need any indication? Watch this clip , we will never see intense competition like this again because the league won’t allow it. A related issue came to a head during the Spurs/Suns series. Most fans have lost faith in the league office. Its become increasingly hard to believe their impartiality. We no longer (if we ever did) identify with or understand the league’s rulings. David Stern has alienated his fan base, and we are seeing it now with the ratings plummet.
All those issues are huge, but none of them looms as large right now as the complete irrelevance of the NBA Finals. Obviously, the reason for this is the fact that the Eastern Conference is far inferior to the Western Conference. Now, this has been an issue the entire decade, but for a number of reasons, this is the first year it has garnered so much attention. In the nine years since Jordan retired in 1998 (during which season there were exactly 2 great Eastern teams anyway), the west has won seven NBA titles, most in convincing fashion. So why is this an issue now? In 1999, the 8th seeded Knicks, a huge underdog from a large market, made the finals exciting simply by virtue of making it. In 2000, the East was represented by Indiana, the only dominant east team held over from the Jordan era. They made the finals competitive and fun. In 2001 and 2002, we were so beholden by the wonder that was the Los Angeles Lakers that we completely overlooked the fact LA was 8-1 in these games (though that one loss, Philadelphia’s game 1 victory in 2001 was a classic). In 2003, people didn’t hate the Spurs quite so much because they were taken in by the David Robinson retirement party. Furthermore, this series went six games, which is enough to make people believe a series is good no matter the quality of basketball (though Tim Duncan’s game 6 performance was, in my mind, the best playoff performance since the MJ era). In 2004 and 2005, we had the apparently short lived run of Piston dominance. The Pistons were a great team, they showed it by winning the title in 2004 and taking San Antonio to seven games on 2005. By sheer virtue of their existence, they made the finals interesting. Last year, the NBA was blessed to have the Miami Heat, a team built with a one year window to win the title. This gave the Heat and its veterans added motivation, enough to propel them past two superior teams. Unlike last year, the young superstar in the Finals is not having his way battling his Western foe, and the Spurs are hated enough to make people complain. And so they do, and the entire blogsphere has to deal with the fact that the NBA needs fixing.
A number of opinions have been thrown around for how to fix the East/West issue, but three caught my eye. Each of the three has its merits, but each comes with the bigger question of, are they doable? The bottom line is that everything the NBA does in terms of scheduling (for both playoffs and regular season) is done with an eye to whether it helps or hinders television revenue. The NBA’s last two major shifts, the change from a five to seven game first round, and the redistribution of teams into six divisions, were both done to increase revenue. The first is more obvious, by increasing the amount of games, you increase the amount of televised events that make the league money. Does a seven game first round series decrease intensity and make it less easy for us to have an upset? Yes. But the league cares about quality of play only as it relates to financial gain. And that is the operative rule that will underlie all of this speculation. The league wants to improve what you see on TV… but only if it can do it without losing money. The realignment of divisions was, in my mind, a response to the East/West differential by creating two more ‘titles’ that can be handed out. Winning the Atlantic division, for example, gives a team and a group of fans something to cheer for, even when it is clear that their team has no chance of winning either the East or the championship. Keeping people interested is the first step to selling tickets and getting them to watch.
The most straight forward of the remedies is to throw out all, or almost all, of the conference differentiation by seeding playoff teams 1-16 and pairing them up the same way as the NCAA tournament. Bob Fitzgerald of the official Warriors website proposes this (along with another suggestion that I think is just crazy). This would eliminate the East/West problem and do it in a simple manner. What it does, however, is completely remove all of the need for conference and division differentiation. Is the NBA willing to do this? Last year, I would have said no, but considering plummeting TV ratings, I’m beginning to wonder how far David Stern would go. The other problem with this would be coordinating TV schedules. In the first round you would have eight series would be going back and forth between multiple time zones, it might be difficult to come up with a TV schedule that allows networks to show every game of every series. This, however, might be easily remedied with creative scheduling, I doubt it would be a deal breaker.
Not all the proposed remedies are so straight forward. In an effort to fix the problem while continuing to give significance to the two conferences, John Hollinger proposes alternating the conferences so that we’d have a bracket that looks like this:
(1East) vs. (8West)
(4W) vs. (5E)
(2W) vs. (7E)
(3E) vs. (6W)
(1W) vs. (8E)
(4E) vs. (5W)
(2E) vs. (7W)
(3W) vs. (6E)
This format would ensure that the best team in each conference earns the right to a top seed. It would also make it so that the best team in the East earns the right to dodge the best team in the West, at least until the finals. Like all of Hollinger’s ideas, this makes sense on paper, and in a league with perfectly intelligent, informed fans, it might work. Unfortunately, I feel as though it would be too complicated to have to explain on a nightly basis, and it just feels too arbitrary. What if, somewhere along the road, we end up with a scenario where two of the better teams play in the second round (it could still happen with the right alignment), fans would still have reason to complain, all the more so because this system would be new and different to them. I doubt that the league would implement something like this, though that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work.
Bill Simmons has the most creative idea, one that he hopes would root out both the East/West disparity and tanking. Simmons would try to allow the the conference system to maintain a semblance of significance by granting the top six teams in each conference automatic bids. Then, he would have the rest of the team battle it out in a double elimination tournament for the last four seeds. Then, the teams would be seeded 1-16. Simmons believes that this would eliminate the point in tanking because to do so they’d have to blow their chance in the double-elimination tourney, risking the alienation of all their fans (as opposed to now?). Furthermore, Simmons believes that the prospect of a team in the cellar sneaking in and grabbing an number eight seed would make for a wonderful story, and he is right. The Celtics could turn it on for two weeks, steal a playoff spot, and make a deep run. However unlikely that may be, Simmons’ system makes it a possibility.
Yet the flaws with this system are just too many. First of all, to have this tourney, you’d either have to extend the regular season further, only continuing to dilute the significance of earlier regular season games, or cancel around two weeks of games for the league’s best 12 team. Stern would never agree to this. It would mean two weeks where fans are forced to watch teams like New York and Minnesota at the expense of Phoenix and Chicago. You think TV ratings are low now? Imagine if for two weeks in the season, fans couldn’t watch the best teams and the best players. You know what they would do? Turn their TVs off, and some of them wouldn’t tune back in until the season was over. The second reason this idea would fail is because it would make the first few months of the season even less relevant. If the Grizzlies could lose 60 games and still make the playoffs, what’s the point of having a regular season at all. A system like this would put bad teams on even ground with mediocre teams, an unfair prospect on a number of levels.
Look, in a perfect world, I would make the season 22 games shorter (everyone plays everyone twice and each game means a whole lot more), remove the first round of the playoffs, and seed the teams 1-8. Not only would this eliminate clunkers from the playoff picture (sparing us from having to wait out series like Detroit/Orlando and Phoenix/Lakers), it would improve the play in later rounds by making fatigue less of a factor (and if you don’t think fatigue is a factor in the finals then you didn’t watch fro 2004-2006). Of course, this plan would never be implemented because it would cost the league over 100 games worth of TV time. And that’s my point, the issue is not whether or not the league can be fixed, it can. The issue is whether the league can find a way to fix the problems that the fans have while maintaining an equally successful business model. Frankly, I’m not sure if that’s possible. In this day and age, the quality of a product is just one of the many factors that go into corporate decision making. It would be nice if McDonalds made their burgers taste better, but that would cost more money. Similarly, the league will only make drastic changes if they will increase revenue, and I’m not convinced any of the changes discussed above could do that. And that is why I am very worried about the future of our league.