The Atlantic’s Sports Roundtable argued today whether or not the NBA lockout (and by extension the condensed schedule) ruined this year’s playoffs. Their premise was that the NBA playoffs are the most “fair” of the major sports’ postseasons (in this case, “fair” means that “the objectively better team most often wins”). It’s a good discussion of an interesting question and definitely worth a read, but I can’t help but take issue with the premise.
The question as phrased — “Did the NBA Lockout Ruin This Year’s Playoffs?” —implies that that the typical NBA-playoffs construction represent some type of ideal — that a lack of surprises is somehow more virtuous than the unpredictable, upset-fueled world of March Madness. Now don’t misunderstand me, I do love playoff basketball, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond reproach. When the league decided to move to a seven-game first round in 2003 (from the more unpredictable five-game series), not everyone (and certainly not me) saw that as progress. Isn’t it inherently less exciting to “know” who is going to win? Sure, surprises and upsets still occur (the Grizzlies’ run last season was pleasantly out of nowhere), but would the playoffs really be worse off if we had more “teams of destiny”? Since when is predictability the goal for any form of entertainment?
The Atlantic piece specifically cites playoff hockey as the antithesis of this meritocracy-style playoff situation. That’s true, but it’s also why people love playoff hockey. Hell, hardly anyone watches regular season hockey, but people love the NHL playoffs. Anyone can win. You never know which team is going to get hot and make a run. This isn’t a liability to be derided at the feet of the somehow more noble (read: boring) NBA. It’s the sport’s greatest strength, and one the NBA could do well to embrace.
Does this mean that a shortened season with a condensed, injury-causing schedule is the best way to get there? No. Was the Pacers-Magic series worse off for not having Dwight Howard? Of course. Is it disappointing that we won’t see Derrick Rose lead his Bulls against the Heat? Definitely. But who knows where things are going? Maybe Indiana will shock the Heat? Maybe the Sixers will ride their win over the depleted Bulls into a playoff run for the ages. Or maybe the Heat will steamroll everyone in the East until they are forced to reckon with the Spurs or Thunder, just like everyone thought would happen before the league’s “second season” began.
But for the first time in a long time, the NBA playoffs are weird. And that’s exciting as hell.