Monday, December 13, 2010

Goliath Always Wins: Playoffs?!?

The following set of essays are some of my thoughts concerning the way NBA fans and writers think about the sport, particularly those aspects regarding “winners” and “champions.” First though, I want to return to the basics of how we think about these subjects, beginning with the playoffs.

Questions beget questions, often making it difficult to find a suitable starting point. The question, “does the best team usually win the championship” raises the question “how do we judge which team is best” as well as the question “why use a playoff system to determine a champion?” Both questions seem to point to an answer that would include the proposition that head to head matchups are an acceptable solution to the “problem” of determining dominance. Yet even accepting this answer, we we still want to know, “why do we want to determine a champion in the first place?” This leads into all sorts of questions about the nature of competition and competitive sports (are there any other kind of sports?).

Why is the playoff system seemingly omnipresent in professional (and even amateur) sports? One reason for its dominance is money. Ever since team owners realized that people would pay more money to see the best teams play against each other, they have tried to get the best teams in their arenas. Some proof of this theory can be seen in the success of the Harlem Globetrotters, especially in the years before black players starred in the NBA. More proof can be seen in the difference between attendance figures of your average NBA team's home games against the Lakers and the Clippers. As well as featuring quality games, a playoff system adds extra games, and the corresponding extra revenue. There's a reason the gradual trend in professional sports has been towards more games in a season, not less. It is therefore not surprising that the playoffs have assumed such a central role in the sports season when it is in the financial interests of the owners, players, and league(s) that they are so important.

None of this is to suggest that playoff series are meaningless or are not usually won by the best team. What it does show is one reason the focus on the playoffs as the ultimate test of a player (and team's) skill and worth is arbitrary. There is nothing about the game of basketball that inherently demands a playoff system. Furthermore, if one must have a playoff system, why a linear series of head to head matchups instead of a round robin type format? A round robin has the dramatic disadvantages of teams playing games after they have been eliminated, and holds the possibility of one team being eliminated in favor of a team it had defeated. On the other hand, our current system anoints the “best” team as the one that has matched up best against its opponents. Ask the 2007 Mavericks what happens to an excellent team when faced with an inferior team that matches up well against them. (Or, I would argue, the 1995 Jazz.) Whatever the case, it is difficult to make the argument that a few head to head contests provide a better measure of team quality than many games against varied competition.

But surely I would not want to claim that the playoffs do not give us any new information besides a few extra data points tacked on the end of the season. What gives the playoffs their importance? As far as I can tell, the genuine importance of the playoffs comes from the fact that the players attach greater worth to the playoffs than the regular season. What player will say that they try harder in a March game against the Clippers than in Game 7 of the NBA Finals? In extreme form, this can be seen in the success of the 2001 Lakers and 2010 Celtics, who (the popular narrative goes) sleepwalked through much of the regular season before deciding to “turn it on” during the playoffs. Finishing with a better regular season performance is not always indicative of team quality, as a comparison of last year's Hawks and Celtics would show. Of course, it is questionable whether those teams could have kept it together for a whole season even if the championship format had required them to do so. And acknowledging the reality of this added importance should not lead us to forget about the frail contingencies of matchups and streaky shooting that provide the foundation for many championships (those not of the Fo' Fo' Fo' variety). The results of the playoffs tell us much, but do not tell us all.

This perspective stands in contrast to some mainstream NBA coverage, in which the pursuit of rings has reached an obsession that would make Gollum blush with shame. The way the Miami Heat have been covered and discussed would be far different were it not so. As Kobe Bryant moves closer to winning his sixth championship, the Jordan comparisons become ever more present (and annoying). And as it becomes more unlikely that stars and superstars like Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, and Vince Carter will win an NBA title, their careers are judged accordingly. Some, like McGrady and Carter, will be judged harshly, and some, like Nash, will be seen as valiant, but never quite good enough. As long as the current narratives hold, some of these players will be remembered fondly, and won't necessarily even be underrated, but the same sense of tragedy will inevitably pervade our memories of them. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Conceding the possibility that the first championship teams may have been motivated more by their playoff bonuses than any thoughts of ephemeral immortality, it seems impossible not to recognize the impact that “championship mythology” has in the 2011 NBA. Next time, I'll talk about Alpha Dogs and role players and the hierarchical prism through which we tend to view basketball players.

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