Full Court Depression

By Jeremy Gordon

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Full Court Depression:

Among the many common denominators of major sports is a mantra as old as America itself: More is better. Major league baseball added wild-card spots to the playoffs, the NFL is talking about it, and the new college football playoff system implemented this year will bring the total number of bowl games to 39—including the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, the TaxSlayer.com Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. So when does too much of a good thing sag toward mediocrity? Just look at the NBA, which this year will mark the 11th postseason since it moved the first round from five games to a best-of-seven format. Conspiracy theorists will insist the move was then NBA commissioner David Stern’s attempt to give the Kobe-and-Shaq Los Angeles Lakers more airtime in an era when the league was struggling for stars. More likely the motivation was money: More games mean added profits from tickets and advertisements, no small deal considering the pool of money divvied up every year among playoff teams.

But has the change been good for competition? The numbers say no: Nearly half the series played since the change have been 4–0 or 4–1 blowouts, which means we aren’t being served more quality basketball, just miserable mismatches. That’s what happens when more than half the teams in the league qualify for the playoffs. What’s more, the best-of-seven format makes it harder for underdog teams to defeat higher-seeded teams and create the type of chaos on which the playoffs thrive. Minnesota Timberwolves center Ronny Turiaf played on the 2005–2006 Lakers, a team that built a 3–1 first-round lead against the higher-seeded Phoenix Suns before losing three in a row. “It’s harder to pull off an upset because it’s more games. With March Madness, you have to invest because you never know what can happen over one game,” Turiaf says. He’s ambivalent about the need for change, though. “Upsets do happen,” he says. “Usually the best team at that moment wins.” (The subtext: There’s no whining in sports.)

Indeed, there have been a few colossal upsets since the NBA moved to the best-of-seven format. Most memorably, in 2007 the Golden State Warriors upset the Dallas Mavericks as an eight seed, needing only six games to pull it off. The result arguably generated more interest than if Dallas had cruised to victory. Why not encourage that kind of drama by reducing the number of games and teams? There’s no indication the league is thinking about switching back. “We changed it more than 10 years ago. No real new ground here,” wrote Tim Frank, the NBA’s senior vice president of communications, when asked for comment. Fine. But who really wins when one of the best teams in the league lays down another ugly four-game sweep on a collection of schlubs? Don’t ask us. We won’t be watching either.


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