Every year at about this time, and only at this time, I feel bad for the NBA. While it plods through the absolute doggiest dog days of the nearly meaningless regular season, America is consumed by maybe its best sporting event of the year, and certainly the best one involving basketball players, the NCAA Tournament.
Here's what the NBA should do in the last two weeks of March: Shut down. Take a break. Enjoy the Tournament. Let the big stars on the playoff teams rest their legs and recover from their nagging injuries before the start of the postseason. Then, once the college games are over, the NBA should imitate the NCAA by having its own tournament of single-elimination games as a prelude to the playoffs.
You think I'm kidding. I'm not kidding. It's just hopeless cause time again.
The NBA shouldn't be competing with the marquee event of its own minor league anyway, but it certainly shouldn't compete if its product pales in comparison, which it does. Don't get me wrong: The worst NBA team playing at three-quarter speed -- which is what even the best teams do about 95 percent of the time in the regular season -- is way, way more skilled than the best college team going all out. But that doesn't mean it's more fun to watch. March Madness takes over your office not because of the quality of play but because of the excitement -- and the gambling, which the single-elimination format makes easy and fun.
We have to forgive NBA players for walking through the regular season with only occasional bursts of full effort. As we've discussed before, the regular season drags on and on, accomplishing little. NBA teams have played 65 to 70 games each by now, on their way to 82, all to eliminate 13 out of 29 teams. And really it's worse than that.
By the end of the season, the Eastern Conference will have spent the last three months determining which three out of six losing teams -- the Cavs, Knicks, Heat, Celtics, Raptors and Sixers, combined winning percentage through Monday: .438 -- get the last three playoff spots, the holders of which almost always lose in the first round of the playoffs. The rest of the teams have long since been established as in (Pacers, Nets, Pistons, Hornets, Bucks) or out (Bulls, Magic, Wizards, Hawks). It's a little better in the West, and I mean a little.
How about this instead: End the regular season right here, just before the NCAA Tourney begins. All 30 teams (the Charlotte Bobcats become the 30th next year) make the playoffs. The top six seeds in each conference automatically advance to the conference quarterfinals, which is where the playoffs begin now. The 7 and 8 seeds will have to win one game to get there. And the 9 through 15 seeds, out of the playoffs in the current system, can play their way in too, the 9 by winning twice, the others by winning three times.
In the two weeks after the NCAA Championship Game, while the big stars, guys like Tim Duncan and Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal, on teams with a real chance at the NBA title, rest up, the NBA embarks on its answer to March Madness: April Absurdity. Well, we can work on the moniker. April Ecstasy? No. Drug reference. April Excitement. I don't know, we'll get up a committee. At any rate: April Something! Fourteen single-elimination games. It's the possibility of the loser's season ending that makes the most exciting playoff games so exciting. That's why seventh games are the holy grail of pro sports, and why the NCAA Tournament is so fabulous, times 63.
The 10 seed in each conference plays the 15, the 11 plays the 14, and the 12 plays the 13. The three winners go on to the next round with the 9 seed. The two winners from that round go into one more round with the 7 and 8 seeds. The winners of those two games qualify for the conference quarterfinals. This can be done in three weekends, meaning the playoffs would start at just about the same time they do now, give or take a couple of days.
Taking 10 games off the regular season for each team to play 14 tournament games means 136 games wouldn't be played, which would mean some lost revenue. I think extending interest in the eight or nine cities where all hope is lost by MLK Day, plus the excitement, increased TV ratings and merchandising opportunities of April Exhilaration, would make up for those lost April snooze fests, but what the heck, NBA, if you want to start the season a few weeks earlier or lose a few days off during the year so you can still play 82, go ahead.
Never let it be said there's no room for compromise in my imaginary universe.
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