King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Backwards World: The NBA bumbles while the NHL gets it right. For now.

By Salon Staff
Published December 6, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

It's Backwards World. Turn right to go left. No thank you means thank you. The NHL is getting things right and the NBA is bumbling around.

The NHL board of governors voted this week not to change the league schedule to add more interconference games. This seems like a minor little non-tweak, but it's actually a smart non-move by the league that brought you what felt like 100 years of the neutral-zone trap followed by a lockout that killed a whole season.

The NBA, meanwhile, has been hit with two unfair labor practices complaints by the players union, both of which were predictable given the tin-eared, highhanded actions lately of commissioner David Stern, who until recently was a powerhouse in the mostly soft competition for best commissioner in North American sports.

Stern was forced to admit this week that his unilateral decision to introduce a new, synthetic-material basketball to replace the old leather ball was a mistake. "In hindsight, we could have done a better job," Stern told Liz Robbins of the New York Times.

You think? Like maybe before you tinker with one of the most fundamental elements of the game, you might want to talk to the players, the only element more fundamental, and see if they like the idea? Stern's move was akin to some London Philharmonic manager telling the violin players, "OK, now you have to use these violins. They're plastic. You'll love 'em! They're all the same!"

Then Stern made it worse by responding to the players' complaints as though they were children.

The ball is too sticky when it's dry and too slippery when it's wet with sweat, the players have said. It doesn't bounce consistently. It cuts our fingers. And by the way there was precisely nothing wrong with the old ball.

You'll get used to it, Stern huffed dismissively. The new ball's here to stay. It's like he's been sitting at Bud Selig's knee, absorbing wisdom from the master.

Now Stern says he'll talk to Spalding, the ball's manufacturer, about fixing the problems. And maybe the new ball isn't here to stay after all. "Everything is on the table," he told the Times.

The other complaint by the union involves this year's crackdown on arguing with the referees or even showing displeasure. The constant whining had to be dealt with, but the hair-trigger technical fouls in response to human reactions are over the top. This is the kind of thing that usually gets dialed back once the point has been made, but surely there was a better way to make it.

Meanwhile, as the NBA has been acting as though simple questions like whether to consult the workers before changing their only tool are impossible mind-benders, the NHL has been doing a lot of smart things. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is to not do a dumb thing. Score one for the NHL this week. In spite of itself, but a score is a score.

When the lockout ended the NHL did quite a few smart things, most notably improving the play of the game with a series of rules changes designed to open up the ice for offenses. The most important of these was the elimination of the two-line pass rule, giving offenses a tool to beat the deadly -- I mean deadly boring -- neutral-zone trap.

Ten years too late, but still a good move.

Another smart play was to alter the schedule so that teams play more games in their own division and conference and just a few token contests against the other conference. That saved some travel expenses, but more importantly it emphasized division and conference rivalries at the expense of interconference games.

Now teams play their division rivals eight times each, twice as often as teams in the NBA, which has the same division and conference structure and schedule length, play theirs. Real enmity can build. NBA teams play almost twice as many games against the far-flung teams in the other conference as they do against teams in their own division, 30-16. NHL teams play 32 division games, 10 interconference games.

The big problem is that the league's two most dynamic stars emerged in the Eastern Conference in the aftermath of the lockout, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. So there was some grumbling in the Western Conference that the home fans will rarely get to see those guys.

As opposed to the old system, under which Crosby and Ovechkin would have appeared in each Western Conference arena exactly once per year, provided they weren't injured that night.

There's also the issue that Western teams have to travel more than Eastern teams, and that difference is emphasized if Eastern teams rarely have to venture west.

So there was a proposal before the board to tweak the schedule, get some more interconference games in there. In other words, we came up with this great new system, and now after a year and a quarter we're ready to scrap it because two exciting kids have come up in one conference.

It's asinine. A few years down the road a couple of hotshots will come up in the West -- or Ovechkin and Crosby will get traded to Detroit -- and these same Western Conference execs will be going, "Why do we have to play the damn Florida Panthers twice a year?"

So they voted it down. They didn't really. They voted 19-11 in favor of a proposal to bring the interconference-game total up to 18 per team, according to the Globe and Mail, but the change needed a two-thirds majority.

The board of governors will reportedly revisit the issue in mid-January, with a change for next year a real possibility. Those in favor just need one more vote.

Oh well. Maybe it's not Backwards World after all, but here's hoping cooler heads prevail.

Previous column: Bears question: Ax Rex?

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