Rain, Rain, Shiny Oils
For a change, I will now go the way of the numerals. Thus far, the closest I’ve ever come is tending to one of Silverbird’s cheery trances. Perhaps as a sign of fatigue, I am now myself ready to make an argument whose sole defense is in its own calculations.
At what point did you recognize how abysmal the East was this season? It came to me around the time I felt LeBron dimming. I could see that he was failing to deliver, and yet the Cavs had curiously begun to rise in the standings. I turned that very day to crunching some numbers, an uncharacteristic act that in itself signaled alarm; my operations were flawed and never saw the light of day. But when Henry linked to some more adequate efforts, there could be questioning my intuition: the East was a haven for mediocrity’s darlings, and only at its dreariest dregs did the West cease to field competitive teams. The East may have housed the future, in the persons of James, Wade, Arenas, Howard, Durant and Oden. At the moment, though, its glitzy second-tierdom was as pronounced as it had been in the woeful 2001-2002.
On the surface, this is wretched for the sport. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the benchmark of the league’s health is the Finals ratings. When the Lakers were expect to demolish some Nets-like pretender, people knew months in advance to avoid the series. This supposedly renders only the Western half of the playoffs viewable, and makes it nearly impossible to stomach any regular season games not involving two Western pummel-crafts.
But if the West is top-to-bottom a superior conference, its playoffs become inherently more intense. The first round means little when success is distributed even across the two conferences; put a disproportionate amount of it in the West, however, and all three stages become potentially noteworthy. We saw this last season, when Lakers/Suns and Spurs/Kings both somehow invited intrigue to loiter on their shores. When all teams are deserving, so to does the postseason represent a far less biased system of elimination. From this perspective, no fewer than seven playoff tangos are must-see referendums on basketball’s finest.
Now allow me to produce the unmentionable: the strange theorem that supposes, in all its languid stench, that this is good for the Eastern Conference playoffs. You see, suddenly therein we find something much like the NFL’s valued parity. In the East’s sweltering crappiness, you can make a legitimate argument that any team that makes the playoffs can conquer any other, given enough time and the right surface tension. Last season, we were stuck on the emergent LeBron, the still-ominous Reborn Pistons, and the Heat’s avalanche effect. With all of these jewel’s cracked and tarnished, why aren’t they vulnerable to the Raptors or Nets? The lack of any dominant teams in the East, and the innumerable flaws in each and every non-Detroit roster, puts us in a position to relive the glories of 2000-2003
If you remember, back then the Eastern Conference playoffs featured truly convulsive individual performances that, however briefly and locally, made names into memories. Vince and Iverson, The Big Three, T-Mac shop-wrecking, that Celtics comeback, B-Diddy. . . Chauncey’s immeasurable guest spot bowed down to these misplaced acres of shine, and certainly they did not arise from nothing. We like to believe that Arenas/Bron was the birth pangs of a new world order, when in fact it was predicting this return to feudal excellence. The Heat championship, I’m sorry to say, was vintage Eastern ball—which is to say that, with a less cherubic protagonist, Wade’s 2006 would have gone the way of Iverson’s 2001. That said, and hopefully most of you dismayed, this is complete and total reason to scale the walls and bark. People, get ready an East postseason where superior talent takes up this abandoned mode. I don’t know how it will happen, or to whom, but there will be no sweet-tongued teamwork in these desolate parts. Expect Deng to bust out for 25ppg, Billups to take it to the stage, some dude on the Raptors to go the eff off. For when the darkness falls, angels cannot see their own virtue.
I’ll take this a long step further and say that this improves the season itself, too. As I derisively noted above, it makes the entire playoffs open to the possibility of adventure—even if one-half of it is yoked by futility. By this same dutiful annoyance, in-conference games have an extremely high probability of turning out competitively. Sure, the East games report from an inferior realm. Yet last I checked, plenty of you watch the NCAA, and the NFC has its fair share of devotees. If you’re just looking to see something exciting go down on a weeknight, conference imbalance gives you roughly 2:1 odds that it will be. The more prowess is evenly distributed across the two conferences, the more even this ratio becomes—and thus, the less overwhelmingly likely that any given game will result in intrigue.
Maybe this is another voluble FreeDarko risk, but risk it I will nonetheless: close games are neat, no matter how useless they ultimately may turn out to be. Just as storylines cannot salvage a beatdown, a lack of significance can easily be forgotten when OT rolls around. If a close game is its own virtue, than a season configured to maximize this possibility is, from a purely hedonistic perspective, unforgivably positive. We will watch the West for meaning and the East for kicks, just as we do in the playoffs. And in the process, we will undoubtedly discover a greater quantity of basketball requiring little of our thinking fan’s equipment.