Thursday, June 20, 2013

How The NBA Can Get More Competitive

Playoff time in any sport is without a doubt the best time of the year. It truly doesn't matter if your favorite team made the playoffs or not, if you're a fan of the sport, you're watching the playoffs.  As an NBA junkie I try to watch every single playoff game possible and I love the NBA's 40 games in 40 nights setup they currently employ. 

Now, while I do absolutely love the playoffs I do think the current NBA playoffs system pales in comparison to the playoffs of other sports, notably the NHL.  While I know most NBA fans may disagree with me, I have some good reasoning, and I think that when I'm done explaining most people will agree with me. The current problem with the NBA is that the disparity between top teams and bottom teams is far too high throughout the league.  This is in large part due to media markets, and it's common knowledge that larger markets attract more marquee players as they generally have the ability to pay these players.  I understand that small market teams have been successful in recent years, with the Spurs playing in this years NBA finals, the Thunder playing last year, and my Orlando Magic playing back in 2009.  However, this is not a common theme when it comes to the the biggest stage in the NBA.  Realistically those teams reached the finals because let's face it, between Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Tim Duncan, those teams had some of the best players of their respective generations.  That's without even mentioning the other players that played big time roles on those teams like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli.  Sure, plenty of small market teams end up making the playoffs, but rarely do they have that much success.  Take a look at the NBA Finals since 2000, there have been 17 big market teams make appearances as opposed to 7 small market teams.  I will admit I didn't list Detroit in either of those categories, as they are the 11th biggest media market, and I consider New Jersey a large market as New Jersey shares New York's media market which is the largest in sports.  

I believe the NBA Playoffs could be remedied by limiting the field of teams that make the playoffs.  The NBA is a 30 team league, and 16 of those teams make the playoffs.  For those of you who are not good at math, that's over half of the league playing in the postseason, which is absolutely ridiculous.  For example, the Milwaukee Bucks finished the regular season with a record of 39-44 five games under .500! Furthermore, the Boston Celtics made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with a barely passable 41-40 record.  I'm sorry, but that is absolutely ridiculous.  If you finish the regular season under .500 there is absolutely no reason that you should have any shot at winning anything in the postseason.  Realistically if anyone thought that Miami was going to drop a single game of their 7-game series to Milwaukee they were either a delusional Bucks fan, someone who hates Miami way too much, or a resident of their local psych ward.  I understand that edging teams out of the playoffs costs the league money, and that the NBA is a business, but at the end of the day as loyal as I am to the brand and business that is the NBA I'm simply not that interested in a shitty product.  

Here's the deal, since the NBA switched to the current eight team playoff format in 1984 only five 8th seed teams have managed to upset the No. 1 seed.  Again, if you can't do the math that's 29 years.  In 29 years there have been 58 match ups between the 1 and 8th seeds and only 5 of those times has the 8th seed one, good for a paltry 8.6% of those games.  The last time an 8th seed made the NBA Finals? The 1999 New York Knicks, who lost in 5 games to the San Antonio Spurs during an extremely lockout shortened season. I feel it's also worth mentioning that, that particular Knicks squad was the only 8th seed to ever make an NBA Finals appearance.  I will admit that the Houston Rockets did once make the NBA Finals with a losing record, however that was back in the 1980-81 season and while there were only six teams per conference to make the playoffs there were also only 23 teams in the league, compared to the current 30.  In terms of low seeds winning the NBA Finals the lowest seed ever to do it was, unfortunately for me, the Houston Rockets who swept my beloved Orlando Magic in 4 games in 1995, making them and the Knicks the only two teams below the 4th seed to make the Finals.  That also doesn't include the fact that the three and four seeds haven't fared all that well either, with a combined seven 3/4 seeds making the NBA Finals since 1984.

Look, I realize that the NBA is a fairly low variance sport, and that there's a pretty high disparity between teams in terms of talent level, but I also think this is because of the way the NBA is constructed in its current form.  For example, there is absolutely no way that a team like Milwaukee or New Orleans is able to land 3 huge superstars and keep them around because their market is simply not big enough.  This is why hopefully with the most recent CBA the financial disparity will change a little bit in the NBA.  Because see, I get it, most players want to go somewhere where not only can they make a lot of money, but that the team has the resources to pay other highly talented players in order to help them win while making all of this money.  Sure, there are some guys that are loyal like Kevin Durant, and Tim Duncan, etc.  Durant has shown that he wants to stay and that he really wants to win in Oklahoma City, but how feasible is it?  I mean, the Thunder had to trade away James Harden because they couldn't pay him what he was worth.  If that's the case then how will the Thunder bring in any other high priced talent to play with their two stars in OKC?  I realize that the small market thing works, look at the Spurs, a brilliant organization that has built an incredible team around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, but those guys are all in the twilights of their career, what will become of the Spurs when they leave?  The current pattern of the NBA would suggest that eventually the Spurs will fall back into obscurity.  While the situation with the Thunder is different in that they're still very young, what if they never develop the same kind of system that we've seen in San Antonio?  How long will Kevin Durant be willing to keep coming up short in Oklahoma City before he starts looking for greener pastures?  We've seen the same thing happen with Chris Paul in New Orleans, Carmelo Anthony in Denver, and quite obviously LeBron James in Cleveland.  The thing that really gets me about this as well is that I don't truly believe that LeBron ever wanted to leave Cleveland, but when you've been dubbed "The Chosen One" and are constantly being harassed about not bringing home a championship, you're going to start looking for places you can win one.  LeBron obviously found that in Miami, Chris Paul has been proven to be the missing piece on an extremely talented Clippers team, and Carmelo, well, he may be the exception considering he's playing with a slew of players that he played with during his time in Denver. 

At the end of the day the NBA needs to step back and take a long hard look at their current postseason, and the way the league is formed in general.  Sometimes I wonder what makes me continue to root for my Magic when it seems as though they'll only challenge for a title every so often.  The NBA needs to adjust its revenue sharing, reconfigure its current salary cap, or drop the last two teams playing in the playoffs in order to make the league more competitive.  I'm not suggesting that every team should be equal, but I think that given a level playing field, the NBA's brand and product will increase immensely if small market teams are actually given a chance to compete.

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