NBA is ‘pretty good,’ but season is still too long

Funny, I could have sworn I wrote a column last week bemoaning the nonsensical length of the NBA regular season. I think I said I actually like the league itself, and I’m almost positive I never turned my piece into a tract espousing the virtues of baseball as a sport over those of basketball. It turns out I managed to write an “anti-NBA column” despite devoting three paragraphs and over 200 words toward explaining why the league is pretty good these days. It’s cool to gloss over that though; I probably didn’t write those things anyway. I do appreciate the opportunity for engaged discourse, however, so I’ll take this opportunity to defend the point I originally made because I just don’t have enough space here to respond to criticisms of things I didn’t even say initially but would defend now just for the hell of it.

No matter what anyone says, there is no convincing argument that the NBA season should be as long as it is. Ron Artest proved my point for me last week when he requested some time off from the Pacers to recover from the rigors of recording and promoting his debut R&B album (hitting stores Nov. 23; be sure to cop that.) He vocalized what everyone already knows — these early games are irrelevant. When 2005 rolls around and Artest is recommitted to winning a title, the Pacers will kick it into gear and finish with a top-three seed in the East. He knows that. He knows when the season starts to matter. So do we.

And despite protests to the contrary, the number of playoff spots does indeed preclude meaningful play during the regular season. The NBA tacitly recognized the unhealthy preponderance of mediocre playoff teams by expanding the first-round of the playoffs from five to seven games in 2003. The 1994 Denver Nuggets picked off the top-seeded Sonics in the first round of the playoffs despite sputtering to a 42-40 regular season mark. Seattle went 63-19 in the regular season but exited unceremoniously after losing in five to a fringe team that got in to the dance through the back door. Upsets are swell, but they undermine the credibility of a regular season that is (and was even more so in 1994) designed to reward mediocrity. Why bother being 20 games better than another team over six months if the only benefit is one extra game at home in a quick series?

Other people seem content to make my points for me. My critic cited the 1999 Knicks reaching the finals as a benefit of the expansive number of NBA playoff spots. Again, I’m not really sure, but I think I called the 1999 NBA season “by far the most enjoyable in recent memory.” The reason? They only played 50 games! Those Knicks were the most unrepresentative No. 8 seed in NBA history, as they finished a mere six games out of the top spot in the conference. Meanwhile, last year’s second-best team in the East finished seven games behind the conference leader (that is, further out of first from the runnerup spot than those Knicks from the eight spot.) That team? The eventual NBA champion Pistons. Does that make last year’s Pistons valiant underdogs? Forgive me if I fail to see the miracle of the Knicks’ playoff success that year and how that speaks to the benefits of an all-encompassing playoff system.

On the other hand, the baseball regular season is an entity in and of itself. Only one team (residing in New York) can honestly view an entire season as an abject failure due to shortcomings in the postseason. In the NBA, advancing to the playoffs is the threshold of success for only the most marginal of teams. For most teams, advancing in the playoffs determines a season’s success with mere entry being a given. You think the Spurs took solace in a solid regular season last year? You think the neighboring Astros maybe have a different sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that they both reached the second round of their respective playoffs?

Since my buddy seemingly argued that the expansion of the baseball playoffs to a whopping four teams in each league dilutes the post-season, I’ll point out that this year’s Red Sox (his favorite example) finished with the second-best record in the league. Even if they had hypothetically finished with the league’s fourth-best record (the worst they could do while still gaining entry into the post-season), they would still have been better than 10 teams in their league over the course of 162 games. Meanwhile, those fabled No. 8 seeds fall in the bottom half of their conference but still get a chance to render 82 games entirely meaningless by playing well in four. Baseball is content to leave its Division Series at five games because no winner in that series can be seen as fluky or illegitimate thanks to the rigorous criteria based upon which post-season berths are bestowed. The NBA could not afford to stand pat and run the risk of losing its best teams to bouts of inconsistency that are not only tolerated by expected in the regular season.

I’ll turn quickly to the Lakers (who appear to be my adversary’s NBA team of choice) in order to defuse a couple of his points. First, he maintains that teams cannot merely “coast” during the regular season and that this fact is evidenced by where championship-bound teams finished in their conferences. I merely argued that in the NBA, teams can tune out for half a season and still be assured of a playoff spot. Well, after the Lakers’ 18-3 start last year, they went on an inspiring 11-15 run for the next two months before heroically getting their act into gear for the playoffs. The year before that, a team coming off three consecutive titles started the season 11-19 before deciding once again to proverbially “turn it on” just in time. They did not win a championship either time, but their chances were not hurt by their extended mediocrity.

I also disagree with the notion that teams that do shut it down for a prolonged stretch get penalized by having to head out on the road in the playoffs. I would argue that the propensity of higher-seeded teams to advance in the playoffs reflects the wholesale superiority of those top four seeds over their counterparts who are only in the playoffs by default and not the perks of playing in front of a home crowd. Again, there are simply just too many substandard teams in the playoffs. Just for fun, look at those same two Laker teams, both of which had to play the Spurs and the Timberwolves in the playoffs without the benefit of home-court advantage. In 2003, they beat Minnesota before falling to San Antonio. Last year, they beat both. Did those protracted periods of futility during the regular season have any impact on the playoffs and how the Lakers fared once there? Did the Lakers not reach the NBA Finals last year despite their middling play for two months?

Already over budget here, I have to withhold my responses to issues raised concerning steroids, salaries and fan interest (none of which I raised independently or in comparison to baseball in the first place but which I will enjoy getting to nonetheless) until next time. Ah, the perks of being a regular columnist. Installment one here is merely meant to clarify the only argument I was making in the first place, which was — eloquently put — that the NBA season sucks. Where did this all come from anyway? It must have been that part where I said I like the NBA. Confusing stuff. And Danny, next time you want to call me out in print, it’s Mr. Feit to you. Or, if you want, in light of your homage to the mid-’80s, we could just re-enact Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis in Game 3 of the ’84 Finals with the two of us representing the players from our respective teams.

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