The Answer

By the

April 19, 2001

The playoffs are coming. The NBA playoffs are coming. The best playoffs are coming.

Think 13-year-old teenybopper-chick meets MTV’s-designated boy band of the month. Now, add some logic, a sense of history, a little bit of intelligence, boyhood memories of Mark Aguire and my hometown Dallas Mavericks battling my favorite player, Magic Johnson, and his Lakers, for the right to stomp the truly evil Eastern Conference Champion. Presto, you understand the glee I feel about the NBA playoffs.

(Educational tangent: Basketball helps your grades by providing you with the edifying effects of watching athletic geniuses at their most intense. In four years, I have consistently done dramatically less studying for spring finals because of basketball, but my grades are always better than they are in the fall. We can call the effect “interstate osmosis of genius rays.”)

Back to the sports focus: In my mind, NBA Playoffs is March Madness (furious excitement) meets Major League Baseball (painstaking attention to producing a true champion) meets a battle of the Gods (the greatest athletes in the world). There is no better way to determine a champion. Even the League’s attempts to help the big market teams with favorable calls and nifty scheduling can’t defeat the perfection of the system itself.

Let me explain this puzzle a little better. The NBA playoffs are like March Madness for a bunch of reasons: There are usually some early sets. The field is gigantic. The style of play is varied, and in the early rounds there are more games. Most crucially, the sport is basketball. Only it’s intellectually better than the college version.

Unlike the NCAA system, the upsets don’t prevent the best team from winning the championship. The best teams (last year’s Lakers and Pacers) might drop some games to weaker, younger opponents, but they won’t drop a full series unless they play someone extremely good. In the NCAA, Arizona can win it all in 1997, return the entire team and then go out in the Sweet Sixteen in 1998. That only happens in the NBA in rare cases.

The best team and the best player almost always come out on top. Jordan, Bird and Magic won 14 times in the 19 years when any of them played. During the five off years, the next best players (Dr. J, Hakeem Olajuwon and Isaiah Thomas) picked up the slack. Even in the strike shortened 1999 season of post-Jordan randomness, the Spurs won, because they had Tim Duncan. Boring or not, he was the best player for that rhythmless year.

The best finish first. I’m sure that will help someone with a philosophy class.

Baseball and hockey also rely on the fair best-of-seven system, but they are flawed in other ways. Baseball is boring. Hockey has the goalie factor, which throws the whole fairness thing on its head. If you’ve run into a hot goalie, you can be awesome and it won’t matter. Hockey would need a best-of-25 format to counter the goalie effect. In the words of a great philosopher, “I fought the Roy and the Roy won.” (Note: Roy is pronounced waw, which sounds like law.)

Its clich? to say that basketball has deteriorated in the past five years. I am not digging that intellectual dishonesty. They are still the best athletes in the world. Show me anything as phenomenal as 6’0” Iverson battling guys a foot taller than him or someone as powerful and skilled as Shaq or someone as brave and intense as Alonzo. It’s the beginning, rather than middle or end, of an era.

In basketball, there is no Roy; there is only fairness and greatness. Michael Jordan was the best athlete ever. Basketball made it possible for him to show it. Now that he’s gone, it is the exciting time again. It’s time to find a replacement.

If Iverson, Shaq, Duncan and Zo can’t sort out who is best as easily, that’s an honest, fair result. More power to them for not bowing down before each other the way Drexler, Malone, Payton, Barkley and Ewing folded in the face of Jordan.

The playoffs are coming.

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