Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Absence of Drama Down NBA’s Homestretch

By Bob Ekstrom

A few weeks ago, Commissioner David Stern advised fans to "stay tuned for the last exciting weeks of the season." Yet, as we head into April, the NBA has just flipped the calendar for the final time in one of its most anti-climactic seasons in modern memory. With only 17 days to go, the lack of postseason urgency that was manifest throughout the winter has left the Association without a pennant race to speak of down the stretch.

The postseason field has remained virtually intact since as far back as January 25. The 16 teams who held playoff spots that day have maintained them into not only February, but March and April, as well. No other team has made inroads excepting only the Los Angeles Lakers, whose 19-7 run in March helped them temporarily usurp Utah as the Western Conference's eighth seed.

Going into April, the Lakers and Dallas were the only remaining outsiders with any chance for postseason entry, although the case for the dark horse Mavericks was effectively closed last night in Los Angeles, while the Lakers kept up their playoff push. Nevertheless, here on the East Coast, I won't be sitting up for the next fortnight waiting on the nightly returns out West. The battle for the final Western Conference spot is a glorified play-in game with stakes not that much higher than those in the opening two nights of the NCAA tournament: the winner earns the right to get thumped by San Antonio. Like some golden apple flung at the feet of Atlanta, this is a distraction that takes us off the path to a championship, an afterthought being played out in the bowels of basketball that reminds us all of what led the NFL to scrap its Playoff Bowl back in 1970.

So, where is all the theatre 645 Fifth Avenue keeps propagandizing?

Even among the chosen ones, things have been static. Since the Spurs moved percentage points ahead of Oklahoma City by virtue of the Thunder's January 27 loss in Los Angeles, the top two seeds in each conference have remained immovable. Other than the Denver Nuggets, who have climbed from sixth to third in the West, and the Chicago Bulls, who've fallen from third to fifth in the East, no team has moved more than one slot in either direction in the last two months. It's as if everyone is cozy in their spot, relegating fans to the soap-operatic concerns over their team's decision to be where they are. Like a March Madness bracket, they'll play out all the permutations of paths to the NBA Finals, which of course is made possible by the Association's stubborn refusal to reseed after each round.

Maybe some of us like this little nuance. The NFL reseeds. The NHL reseeds. Even the PGA re-pairs after each round. In this age of change, the NBA's endearment to tradition is austere as life in Pennsylvania Dutch country. You just don't see it that kind of thing anymore.

And maybe the Association deserves some patience. Improvements take time, and Stern & Co. just don't do postseasons right. As recently as 1988, 16 of 23 teams made the playoffs, which the NBA finally rectified not by weeding the field down to just the good teams, but by adding a whole lot more bad teams to balance out the ratio. And just this past 2006, the guarantee of a top-three seed to each division winner was revoked, partially fixing the very rigid framing of an NBA postseason. Let's not build Rome in a day here.

Bracket management is something to occupy the basketball mind in the wake of March Madness. We know that if our Grizzlies can somehow get a game up on Denver, we'll leap from fifth place into third and delay a date in San Antonio. We enjoy the irony of routing against our Atlanta Hawks or Chicago Bulls because falling back into sixth place means not having to face the Heat until the Eastern finals. It's make-do theatre, just about the only source of excitement in a league absent of drama, but it's time for Commissioner Stern to come to his senses.

Want better drama in April? Find ways to improve the on-court quality of the product. Raise the minimum draft age. Strike sign-and-trades out of the next CBA. Eliminate player manipulation of rosters during free agency. Contract. Basketball is not working in New Orleans and Sacramento. It's dying in Detroit and Milwaukee. Basic economics dictates that less of a supply will generate more demand.

That's real demand, sparked by real interest in good basketball. Not that artificial interest generated by an incessant need to avoid top seeds come playoff time.

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