NBA’s painful road to the Finals shows benefits of parity in coin-flip NHL playoffs

 

 
 
 
 
LeBron James, who scored 38 points on the night, was like a video game character who had to defeat a succession of bosses as the Celtics tried to guard him with one player after another.
 
 

LeBron James, who scored 38 points on the night, was like a video game character who had to defeat a succession of bosses as the Celtics tried to guard him with one player after another.

On the list of Columns I Almost Wrote But Am Glad I Didn’t, there is a recent entry: the NHL has a parity problem.

Much of what would have been the evidence for that piece remains true. The early rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs did their usual thing this spring, which is that they took a bunch of teams of varying levels of skill and ability and then churned out winners seemingly at random. Chicago, Minnesota, Montreal and Columbus, all strong 100-point teams in the regular season, didn’t make it past the first round. Washington, which won 55 games in a season in which no other team won more than 50, barely survived a pile of overtime games against eight-seed Toronto and then was dismissed in the second round anyway.

There is something to be said for this kind of unpredictability, but it comes at a cost. When your season is an 82-game slog of attrition followed by the Wacky Wheel of Playoff Success, you run the risk that fans grow tired of the mirage of their team’s regular-season performance. We spend months establishing that the Blackhawks are a team of Serious Leaders and Clutch Performers, and then they get bounced in the first round two straight years. One could forgive Wild fans for waiting until late April next year to decide if they want to invest their hope in the team, given that a franchise-record regular season in wins and points turned into five whole playoff games. You want the regular season to be more than just the chance to get a ticket to a post-season lottery.

But, conveniently for the NHL, the NBA playoffs have been unfolding concurrently, and they happen to be an example of how bad things can get when the postseason goes another way. As much as hockey’s wild playoffs undercut the point of the regular season, basketball’s playoffs themselves have felt utterly meaningless, as everyone waits for the inevitable Cleveland-Golden State matchup in the Finals for the third straight year. The only drama is whether Boston or San Antonio will manage some games in their respective conference championships — or if the Cavs and Warriors make it to the Finals with 12-0 playoff records.

That is not a particularly interesting storyline. Heading into Friday night, Golden State had won each of its 10 games by an average of 17 points, a massive jump from their 11.6-point differential in the regular season, which was itself four points higher than the second-best differential in the NBA, the 7.2 posted by San Antonio. Cleveland’s point differential in the playoffs is better than that, a nice round 10.0, which is a touch misleading because the Cavs have seen a lot of huge leads shrink during garbage time. Game 1 against the Celtics was typical of these playoffs: Cleveland stomped them 61-29 in the first half — in Boston! — and then eased off as they cruised to victory. LeBron James, who scored 38 points on the night, was like a video game character who had to defeat a succession of bosses as the Celtics tried to guard him with one player after another. Boston coach Brad Stevens said afterward that there was no point in talking about the “answer” to guarding LeBron. No such player exists, at least not in the Eastern Conference. It is an interesting barstool question: if you assembled a team of the best players in the East who are not Cavaliers, would they be favoured in a series against James and company? (I think maybe, but would be afraid to bet on it.)

This season feels like the inevitable climax to the trend that began a decade ago with the assembly of the star-laden team in Boston, was followed with LeBron’s trip to South Beach with Chris Bosh, and continued with his new Big Three in Cleveland. While the NBA has tried to limit the ability of Super Friends to combine their powers by allowing teams to offer bigger contracts to their own players and discouraging sign-and-trades, there is only so much they can do. Kevin Durant’s decision to join the 73-win team in Golden State that had just beaten him in the playoffs was a clear indication that, in basketball, where one player on a small roster can have a huge impact, anyone who is not joining a team of megastars is kind of wasting their time.

The top-heavy NBA should make for an incredible Finals, but has it has been a painful road there. And barring injuries, it’s hard not to think that the coming offseason and all of next season will just be a prelude to Cavs-Warriors IV.

Hockey’s system, with the hard salary cap that squeezes every team toward the middle, at least has the merit of giving many teams a true shot at playoff success. Parity has all but ruined predictability in the NHL playoffs, but they do not lack for excitement. And as the NBA has shown, it beats the alternative, at least in the early rounds.

Although, if 44-win Ottawa meets 41-win Nashville in the Stanley Cup finals, I reserve the right to bring back that column I didn’t write.

 
 
 
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LeBron James, who scored 38 points on the night, was like a video game character who had to defeat a succession of bosses as the Celtics tried to guard him with one player after another.
 

LeBron James, who scored 38 points on the night, was like a video game character who had to defeat a succession of bosses as the Celtics tried to guard him with one player after another.

 
LeBron James, who scored 38 points on the night, was like a video game character who had to defeat a succession of bosses as the Celtics tried to guard him with one player after another.
Washington, which won 55 games in a season in which no other team won more than 50, barely survived a pile of overtime games against eight-seed Toronto and then was dismissed in the second round anyway.
Kevin Durant’s decision to join the 73-win team in Golden State that had just beaten him in the playoffs was a clear indication that, in basketball, where one player on a small roster can have a huge impact, anyone who is not joining a team of megastars is kind of wasting their time.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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