Under 10 games to go and the NBA kicks into overdrive for the playoffs. The New Jersey Nets have started early, riding a twelve game winning streak led by their speedy three, Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter. Wins over the Heat, Suns, Pistons, Mavericks and Lakers-all playoff teams including several division leaders-during their current streak have crossed the Nets into the threshold of elite teams. The group of elite teams, however, is small.
The NBA is short on competition. Only three teams per conference are title contenders in the field of 16. The Pistons, Heat and Nets run the East Conference.
Cleveland, who boasts an almost identical record to New Jersey lacks the offensive fire power without Larry Hughes to help LeBron James, despite their successful record in March (10-4). Also, nobody knows how LeBron will respond to the playoffs.
New Jersey’s run-n-gun with Kidd, Jefferson, and Carter looks good on the surface, but center Nenad Kristic will be an ineffective big man when he has to battle Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal, as well as Ben and Rasheed Wallace of Detroit.
Size matters in the slow down, grind-it-out halfcourt style play of the playoffs. Just ask Sacramento from 2000-2003.
In the West, the same three contenders from last year reign supreme. The San Antonio Spurs survived Dallas’ early season burst to grind into the first slot in the Southwest Division. Phoenix, six games behind Dallas, is hoping Amare Stoudemire’s return after an almost season-long ankle injury hasn’t been re-aggravated. Though, their defense anchored by Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion should get a win or two versus San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals.
Barring upsets, which require divine intervention in a seven game series, San Antonio, with the league’s second-best record, will meet Dallas, the league’s third-best record in the second round because Dallas is a four seed. Therefore, the two best teams in the Western Conference will play in the second round, not the conference finals as it should be. Dallas Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson, “The Little General,” will be seeing the Spurs’ Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker much sooner than deserved.
The seven-game format of the NBA playoffs means no George Mason’s, and midnight will come for the Cinderellas in the semifinals at the latest. Eight seeds don’t beat the top seeds in the NBA; the 1993 Denver Nuggets are the only team to accomplish this feat, and that was with a five-game first round format. An NBA playoff series is too long. They just don’t have the startling intensity of the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard for a less talented team to win four games. The best team almost always wins a best of seven series.
The NBA’s insistence on seeding the top three conference spots based on division leaders guarantees the two best teams in the West will meet before the final round.
The three round playoff format is anti-climactic because upsets don’t happen and the second round is pre-determined.
The top four seeds in each conference will see the second round. And only six of the sixteen teams allowed into the playoffs are even serious contenders.
The NBA shouldn’t care if each division is represented because it’s the teams’ job to earn their way into the playoffs. If it had a three-game first round, the NBA might see the competitive intensity of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe then Kobe might see the light of the second round, and the NBA can focus less on the clothes players wear and more on having competitively interesting playoffs.