Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 14, 2022

Chasing Dollars, And, Oh Yes, A Trophy

What follows March Madness?  The answer, of course, is April Adequacy.  For while the third month of the year brings hardcourt fans the delightful chaos of the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments, the succeeding page on the calendar marks the start of the NBA Playoffs, a postseason tournament that regularly finds room for teams that by any objective standard are not competitive, but by the qualification criteria of a given season are deemed good enough to merit a spot in the bracket.  These merely adequate professional playoff contestants might seem equivalent to the would-be Cinderella darlings of the college ranks.  The difference is that those latter squads at least sport winning records and can usually claim primacy of a conference, albeit a decidedly lesser one, while their professional counterparts typically sport middling records and also-ran finishes.  Indeed, the NBA’s early days featured many postseason participants that were just plain bad.  While such teams typically fall by the wayside long before the Finals, their inclusion in the postseason diminishes the value of the NBA’s regular campaign and leaves open the possibility of the league one day crowning a champion that boasts an overall losing record.

A postseason including teams that don’t really belong is a sure sign of an overly large playoff field.  In the case of the NBA, that has been business as usual for as long as the league has been in existence.  Indeed, even before the NBA was the NBA, large playoff fields were a feature, not a bug, of professional basketball’s postseason format.

The league has been celebrating its 75th anniversary during the current season because the NBA’s official history includes the three-year existence of the predecessor Basketball Association of America.  The BAA launched in November 1946 with eleven franchises, six of which made the league’s inaugural playoffs.  That number included the Cleveland Rebels, a squad that in its sole season of existence finished at exactly .500 with a 30-30 record.  But that was good enough for third place in the BAA’s Western Conference and a spot in the league’s playoffs, where Cleveland fell two games to one in the opening round to the third-place team from the East, a New York franchise known as the Knickerbockers that would prove to have considerably greater staying power than the Rebels.

As often happens with fledgling leagues, Cleveland was just one of several franchises to fold before the BAA’s second season, when six teams in the playoffs meant three-quarters of the clubs in a diminished league advanced to the postseason, including the Boston club with its perfectly awful 20-28 record.  But that .417 winning percentage ranks as just the 13th worst among playoff entrants in the NBA’s official records, in large part because the league continued to include six teams in the playoffs while the its total membership totaled only eight, and at least eight as soon as it started to grow.

Thus, through an age when the baseball postseason consisted of only the World Series and the NFL staged just its championship game and the now long-forgotten Playoff Bowl between the runner-up teams in the league’s two conferences, the NBA held multi-round playoffs that included teams like the 1960 Detroit Pistons (30-45), 1950 Philadelphia Warriors (26-42), and the 1960 Minneapolis Lakers, which despite winning only one game in three during the regular season (25-50), bowed out in the second of the three-round playoffs with an overall winning postseason record, having vanquished the almost equally bad Detroit Pistons two games to none in the opening round before falling to the St. Louis Hawks, four games to three.  But the worst postseason squad of all was the 1953 Baltimore Bullets, playoff-worthy as the 4th place squad in the Eastern Division despite an anemic 16-54 record, a .229 winning percentage that left Baltimore 31 games behind the division-winning Knicks.

Fast forward seven decades, and the NBA continues to welcome the merely adequate into its postseason tournament.  These days the mechanism is a blatant play for more televised playoff basketball, even if the quality of play is not likely to live up to such an exalted title.  The expansion of the league’s playoffs that was necessitated by the unique circumstances under which the NBA resumed a shortened 2019-20 season during the COVID-19 pandemic’s first surge has, with a few alterations, been made permanent even as arenas are again filled with fans.  That means twenty teams rather than sixteen play on after the regular season is complete, with the seventh through tenth place clubs in each conference competing in a miniature play-in tournament. 

That format gave viewers the questionable pleasure of watching the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs, two teams that combined to finish 24 games under .500, face off on Wednesday for the opportunity to play the barely better than .500 L.A. Clippers two nights later for the final spot in this year’s bracket.  The reward – though that hardly seems like the right word – for Friday’s winner, either New Orleans or L.A., is a first round series against the regular season’s best team, the 64-win Phoenix Suns.

Of course, there is always a reason why they actually play the games.  Those words appear regularly in this space, though in this instance they are a cautionary admonition rather than a hopeful reminder.  Aside from owners of season tickets to games at Smoothie King Center, few NBA fans would relish the idea of the Pelicans, 36-46 during the just completed season, hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come the middle of June.  However remote the possibility, that it even exists diminishes the efforts of every player and the dollars of every fan spent during the 82 games of the regular campaign.

While the NBA and NHL have been the two leagues with the most conspicuously large postseason fields relative to their total number of teams, the trend cuts across all our major sports.  Any future change is certain to be in the form of expansion, not contraction.  During MLB’s recent collective bargaining negotiations, expanded playoffs were very high on the owners’ wish list.  It was only with great reluctance that management agreed to an increase of just two teams in baseball’s postseason tournament.  The owners would have been much happier with a 14-team bracket rather than the 12 they agreed to, simply because of the increased television dollars produced by additional postseason contests.  At least with “only” forty percent of franchises qualifying starting this year, baseball’s playoffs remain the most exclusive of the four major North American team sports, at least until the next round of bargaining. 

When fans tune in to, or more likely choose to tune out, the final games of this year’s NBA play-in round Friday night, they will be watching clear evidence that no matter the league, for most franchise owners the postseason is no longer about showcasing their sport’s elite clubs and ultimately identifying the best team.  Instead, it is all about cashing in. 

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