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.


At 2/26/2007 11:30 AM, Anonymous Brendo said...

Is this more than an inadvertant argument against expansion/for fewer teams?

"Parity-is-parity" fails to spur in me any greater appreciation for the woefull East than even the novelty of saying "division-leading Toronto Raptors" (which, interestingly, still hasn't worn off.)

I watch the NBA because it is ball played at a higher level of physicality and that makes it a different animal to me than the NCAAs. If competitive equity alone were enough to warrant caring about the game, then you're really just giving us more incentive to watch college ball than the dregs of the East, as this is the most wide-open season I can remember in years at the undergrad level (and at this point, I'd jyst about take the top half of the Pac-10 against the lower of the Atlantic at even money.)

At 2/26/2007 12:48 PM, Blogger Doug said...

"a lack of significance can easily be forgotten when OT rolls around."

welcome to the Portland Trail Blazers' season! Though some of my amusement with the Blazers comes from being a Portlander following his favorite team, a lot of it comes from how many close games the team has played - including a stretch of 3 of 4 in OT right before the All-Star Break.

and the Association is too odd to ever gain the rank-and-file parity the NFL has; it's something sociological within the league. The only parity it could achieve is all-around greatness, much like in the late '80s/early '90s.

At 2/26/2007 1:54 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

Yeah, I gotta agree with Brendo, a bunch of crappy teams playing close games doesn't take away from the fact that you're watching two crappy teams play; and the fact that the teams don't have a shot at ultimately winning anything sucks the intrigue right out of the whole thing.

What's ultimately so frustrating about the imbalance between the two conferences is that come lottery time you get good teams from the West who didn't make the playoff cut in there with draft picks ahead of awful teams from the East who missed the lottery by default of not being as totally miserable as the bottom of the Eastern heap and thus having made the Eastern bracket of the playoffs. This just continues to load the West with more and more talent and pushes the disparity to an even further extreme.

How much more exciting would the league be if all the teams played each other the same amount of times and if the playoffs were just the top 16 teams in the league, not the top 8 from each conference? The fact that the awful teams from the East can coast by most of the year playing each other while the Western teams have to grind it out against vastly superior competition all year makes it really not fair. One can't help but wonder if the Mavs hadn't had to work so hard to get to the Finals last year if they wouldn't have been so worn out that it made it possible for the refs to tip the balance in favor of the Leastern Conference Champs.

At 2/26/2007 3:29 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

Shitty ball is shitty ball. Even for you narrative-lovers at freedarko, it's hard to see narratives about mediocrity as particularly compelling. (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead is a nice little play, but it has nothing on Hamlet.)

I think this post is pretty misguided. I'm just guessing here, but I figure espn paid off Abbott to pay you guys off to write this so that Abbott could subtly link it and endorse espn's latest showing of Lebron and Shaq mailing it in.

At 2/26/2007 7:20 PM, Anonymous alap said...

I might just be reiterating something that was already said in longer, more pointless form, but i think a game's intrigue has a lot more to do with knowing that the game you're watching is the best that it can be, both talent-wise and competition-wise, than you're giving it credit for.

Sure, in the nfl, two teams with watered down talent facing off in the playoffs makes for compelling television, but that's because we know there isn't some other football league out there with more talented teams to watch; bears-saints is the best we're going to get, so there's no reason to complain that neither of those teams is really that hot.

But with the NBA, the disparity in talent between the east and west is so huge that it smacks you in the face every time you watch cavs-pistons that that game doesn't come close to suns-mavs. Yeah, the game may be competitive and it may even go into overtime, but there's always that tears-to-my-eyes feeling of "in a couple hours i'll be watching a game that's way, way better."

also, wild yams, to fix the problem with the draft you posed, why not just have all teams be eligible for the lottery? that way, shitty-recorded east playoff teams don't have to settle anymore for drafting in the mid-teens while non-playoff west teams with better records get to draft in the top 10.

At 2/26/2007 7:46 PM, Anonymous Miss Gossip said...

Who are you people? I’ll watch a basketball game between teams of lame monkeys if it goes to overtime. Suspend belief.

At 2/26/2007 8:27 PM, Anonymous alap said...

so will i. but i would still RATHER watch a game between highly talented monkeys. and that "i would rather" feeling takes away at least some of the intrigue of the game between lame monkeys.

actually, scratch that. monkeys playing basketball = american idol-like ratings no matter what.

At 2/27/2007 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mediocrity is boring. Parity is boring. I hate the "parity" of the NFL. I was recently becoming enthralled with the Celtics for how insanely bad they were. I was drawn by how much they suck. Though they screwed it up by bringing pierce back and heading back toward poor mediocrity. Likewise I was enamored with the Knicks, which are even my all time most hated team because they were like watching a gruesome train wreck every night. Its the average teams I get bored with. Screw parity.


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