The pride of UC Irvine, Scott Brooks, was named the National Basketball Association’s Head Coach of the Year last week. Because of a strong admiration and sense of loyalty toward UCI alums (and a minor affinity toward Serge Ibaka), the NBA playoffs represent at least some sort of interest this year for The Payoff Pitch.
Rooting for Brooks and the Thunder aside, the NBA Playoff opening rounds are roughly on par with the Claim Jumper three–point shooting contest at UCI basketball games in terms of excitement level.
The fact that more than half the teams in the league make the playoffs (16 out of 30) is the first downfall. In the weaker conference, teams with .500 records (this year, Chicago) or even losing records can still make the playoffs. Combined with the fact that there are not many upsets in the NBA, it makes the opening rounds even more cumbersome.
Compare this to the National Football League or Major League Baseball, where 12 out of 32 and a mere 8 out of 30 teams make the playoffs respectively. The exclusivity of these playoffs may cause some elite athletes to miss out on the postseason spotlight, but the elite nature of the accomplishment provides an important gravity.
The problem with cutting down the number of teams that make the playoffs is that every year would be a repetitive re-enactment of the same players who have formed the most successful nuclei. The San Antonio Spurs have been in the playoffs for 13 straight years ever since they landed Tim Duncan, including four championships. Since Kobe Bryant’s draft rights were traded from Charlotte to Los Angeles for Vlade Divac, the Lakers have made the playoffs 13 out of the last 14 seasons, including four titles as well. Led by Lebron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers went from a perennial bottom dweller to a playoff mainstay.
Unlike baseball, where a team can catch fire at the right time and an outstanding pitching effort can win a game for either side, or football, which prides itself on its parity from year to year, basketball largely relies on a starting five, and three, maybe four bench players. Baseball requires a full effort from an entire 25-man squad, and in football, the perfect storm of a healthy team and a team that is not too young or too old is needed.
What makes things worse is the stupidity of the NBA transaction system. When contending teams trade for help in the middle of the season, the players they trade away are oftentimes more valued for their expiring contracts than their talent. Many other times, the players leaving the playoff team is waived, and then simply sign back with the team that traded them. Does this make sense to anyone? An example is Cleveland trading away valuable center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as a part of a package that brought star Antawn Jamison to the Cavaliers. There is no doubt Ilgauskas could have helped the Wizards out, but instead they waived him, and after a mere 30-day waiting period, Ilgauskas signed back with the Cavaliers. Thus, Cleveland ended up with both Jamison and Ilgauskas for the playoff stretch.
Players validate their actions because they want to play for a playoff contender. This leads to the rich getting richer, and a mockery of trades. Players become mere numbers and salary terms on a piece of paper. The usual suspect playoff teams more easily bolster their chances, with teams like the Wizards left to hope for a draft miracle.
Getting back to the subject at hand about the lamentably forgettable nature of the NBA playoffs, there is no easy solution. At the very least, the opening rounds should be five games instead of seven. Baseball implements this common sense tactic in their division series round, whereas the NBA decides to cash in on playoff revenues by adding extra games. The net result is a potential 105 playoff games if every series goes seven games, more than the 82 games that consist of a team’s regular season. Games start in mid-April and stretch all the way to mid-June. The entire month of May is playoff basketball! For the sake of humanity, trim the event. Shorten the series, and make the event more sanctified.