The shortened season may have threatened the league's historically fair postseason.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the NBA postseason.
It's fashionable to rag on the NBA's regular season—too many games; too little effort; in the typical contest, only the last five minutes of the fourth quarter really matter—as the least compelling in professional sports. But the postseason? That's a whole 'nother story. The NBA playoffs are intense, physical and fiercely competitive. Defense rules. Transcendent talent takes over. Team and player strengths are revealed, while papered-over weaknesses are exposed and mercilessly exploited. (See James, LeBron, in crunch time over the last two years).
Most of all, the NBA playoffs are overwhelmingly fair. Just, even. In the NHL, a team can ride a hot goalie and a few lucky bounces to the Stanley Cup. In the NFL postseason, injuries increasingly matter more than seeding. In college basketball, the three-point shot and single-game elimination format make March perpetually mad. None of this happens in pro basketball, where fluky upsets are rare and the best team almost always wins the championship.
Question is, will this season follow suit?
There's little debate that the NBA lockout wreaked havoc with the league's regular rhythms: From a belated Christmas Day opening to the ongoing playoffs, we've witnessed bad, disjointed basketball, a ridiculously compressed schedule (three games in three nights only works for the Harlem Globetrotters) and a rash of injuries to stars such as Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin, and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, some of which have been blamed on the work stoppage. (Sorry, Amare Stoudamire, but breaking glass in the case of a non-emergency can't be pinned on NBA owners' desire to up their BRI income). And all of this has me worried. Worried that the league is on the verge of crowning a bogus champion, akin to the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, winners of what Grantland's Bill Simmons - in his full obsessive-compulsive, list-making ?quien es mas macho? sportswriting glory—calls "the lamest NBA title ever."
Remember: the 1999 playoffs took place after a 50-game regular season that began in February. The No. 8-seeded New York Knicks made the Finals—and are more notable for Larry Johnson's infamous phantom four-point play than for actually being, you know, good. The Spurs triumphed largely because they: (a) had roster continuity; (b) avoided major injuries; (c) didn't have to face the just-retired Michael Jordan. This year's Miami Heat seem primed to repeat San Antonio's performance—and while James and Co. might indeed be the NBA's best team, a worthy successor to past champions, I'm not sure the playoffs will prove it.
Jake, what's your take?