You won't be ready if you're waiting
I have been trying to wrestle down this idea for the past two days (hence, again, no McSweeney's), despite its likely being one of the stupider things I've ever become convinced of. It goes something like this: the Playoffs pare down the Association to the essentials, the teams and players worth mentioning. Classic addition by subtraction for those who want nothing more than for the NBA to bristle with moral clarity and easy answers. Plenty of people would like nothing more than for half of the league to disappear from the face of the earth; elimination from or failure to reach the postseason offers a convenient, empirical mechanism to make this happen. The fewer teams remain, the better the Associations gets, since many of the more problematic elements can then be written off as illegitimate.
As in no other sport, the risk of being "exposed" runs through the narrative of any series. Losing doesn't just mean you're out of the running for the championship, but that, on some level, you never belonged there in the first place. There is so much ill will toward the NBA that glory is meted out judiciously; runners-up might as well not even exist, since giving too many competing factions credit would rule out the possibility of decisiveness. Or, rather, to sort out who's right and who's wrong in the league's internal battles of the spirit, winners have to rule and losers have to get vanquished, no matter how far along it happens. When the Spurs beat the Suns last season, the repudiation was all the more absolute for having taken place in the Conference Finals; a first-round upset is nice and all, but locking horns late in the process means that something essential about the league's identity is really on the line. And, as a result, the loser's failure is all the more crushing.
We all knew what it meant for the Lakers to win, or the Pistons, or the Spurs, as well as what it meant when the Lakers, Sixers, Nets, or Kings lost. Part of what makes this currently underway Playoffs at once vexing, confusing, and intoxicating is that no one knows what the fuck the possible outcomes would stand for. It still doesn't feel like the Spurs are gone, while the once-hallowed Pistons have looked as sluggish and ragged as the Heat team they seem primed to fall to. There's been a ton of talk about whether a Suns victory could augur a new era of small ball, but is it that simple? Isn't that team so chock-full of singular weirdos that any attempt to replicate would most likely end in discourteous mayhem? The Heat are simply proving that, until the end of days, pairing one of history's great centers with as purely dominant a guard as you'll ever see gets some results; the Mavericks, should they walk away with the prize of martyrs, will underscore the importance of surrounding a freakish All-Star with a ton of potent veterans and outrageous youngsters, all of whom buy into a central concept of skilled, scorched-earth effort.
Which is all a long way of saying that, for those looking to figure out the Association's gooey center (no Blount), you'll find nothing this year by watching the season, and league, dwindle way to one ephemeral victor. If anything, I'd advise these sickly souls to look toward the early rounds, when it was proven that many kinds of faith could prosper, or the coming storm on the horizon represented by the likes of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and all the other imminent superstars a little too green to plunge ahead. In the piece I stubbornly refused to finish for McSweeney's, I likened this to political junkies' love and admiration for the primaries, as opposed to the somewhat arbitrary deliverance unto and slog through the general elections. Without discounting the ultimate in winning and losing, I humbly suggest that jockeying for position is just as potent a proof of future validity. Otherwise, one might as well judge the nation's leaders on the strength of over-moderated debates, shapeless interviews, and untimely news items.