every year seems to feature a team lacking its star player for the stretch run. Yet the NBA nevertheless has the best system from the standpoint of both players and fans for determining a champion. Why?
The purity of the system:
The combined length of the NBA season and the NBA playoffs produces perhaps the truest endurance test for any athlete. It is a marathon, not a slow-down-then-sprint sort of exercise. This brings out the best in pure strategy for basketball players and coaches, and for the fans and prognosticators watching their every move. Attrition sees the best brought out in the most deserving players, and the worst brought out in the ones who are too young or too old.
Upsets get rooted out:
Unlike particularly in the NCAA sports and in the NFL, it’s very hard for a real underdog to win the NBA Finals. The last team without home-court advantage in any round to win an NBA championship was the 1995 Houston Rockets. A No. 8 seed (the lowest possible), the New York Knicks, got to the 1999 NBA Finals, but that was in a lockout-shortened year with a small sample size. Upsets a la the 1994 Denver Nuggets and 2011 Memphis Grizzlies tend to be confined to the first round. Pure good play, a little brawn, and a lot of depth—in short, a well-constructed team—tend to wear down teams that just get on a hot streak.
Fan enjoyment is maximized:
The NBA is rightly keen on rewarding its best teams during the regular season with meaningful home-court advantage. The NCAA playoffs are played at neutral sites, and the fan experience tends to be diluted in cavernous NFL stadiums (the Seattle Seahawks being a notable exception) and with the NHL’s ice and glass surrounding the players. Fans of teams with home-court advantage generally get to see their club play at least three games at their building—it is very rare that an NBA team with home-court advantage gets swept. A boisterous crowd provides the raucous atmosphere that the best teams deserve.
Intensity is retained despite the long length of playoffs:
Despite the two months and four sets of best-of-seven series, you don’t see players and coaches ever dog it. The NBA playoffs are nearly always must-see TV. Glamorous offense, tough defense, players getting hot, tons of close games, the occasional scuffle—the NBA playoffs has it all. And even if there is an iffy game, there’s a quick opportunity for a bounce-back—the next game. Whereas, if there’s two bad games in the NFL playoffs, already a good chunk of the postseason is over, especially for the fan who might only have had time to watch those two games.
Finally, I think most of us who know sports history realize there’s rarely anything undeserved about the teams who end up as NBA champions.
Fans of the NBA playoff experience are rewarded with multiple high-quality games stretching out over a sizable period of time. Athletes—and fans—work and agonize too hard to have our season defined by a bad play or a bad game.