Posted: Friday April 14, 2006 12:46PM; Updated: Wednesday April 19, 2006 12:32PM
1. Tim Duncan, Spurs
A foot injury scaled back his numbers, but they're still impressive enough (18.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 3.2 assists). Even more imposing than his individual stats is Duncan's impact on the league's most consistent program at both ends of the court. The team-first hierarchy that may bring a fourth championship to San Antonio works in all ways -- on the court and in the locker room -- because of him.
Playoff format breeds predictability
The unpredictability and drama of the recent NCAA tournament offers some perspective on the upcoming NBA playoffs, which are downright predictable in comparison. While college basketball craves upsets, pro hoops despises them. "Upsets don't help the NBA," says Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "We want the best teams to win."
The NBA has designed the most predictable playoff tournament in sports. Since shifting to seven-game series in every round beginning in 2003, the NBA playoffs have produced an upset -- a loss by the team with home court advantage -- only three times per year on average, or 20 percent of the time. (Over the same period the NFL and baseball playoffs have produced upsets at rates of 47 percent and 48 percent, respectively.)
The NCAA also benefits from the fact that its tournament has emerged as one of the top gambling events in the nation. Nobody would care so much about the impact of George Mason's run to the Final Four if it hadn't ruined so many office pools.
The NBA could introduce more drama by shortening each playoff series to best of five, but league officials say it wouldn't make sense financially because each playoff game generates almost $1 million in gate receipts, with arena revenue doubling to almost $2 million in the larger markets.
Marketing is another issue. Because the NBA is in the business of developing stars, it wants to keep those stars on TV for as long as possible. Its playoffs are open to criticism during those periods when the NBA lacks a charismatic star capable of pulling in large audiences, but that may change as soon as LeBron James fulfills his potential -- after all, nobody was complaining about the predictability of the NBA format when Jordan was winning championships year after year.
The NBA isn't the only league that prefers predictable outcomes. The European soccer Champions League tournament used to be the international equivalent of March Madness. Then in the 1990s TV stepped in with billion-dollar contracts, which in turn invited new sponsors to complain that the upsets were robbing the event of its biggest names. So the event was reformatted to make it more difficult for underdogs to knock off audience-drawing clubs like Manchester United and Juventus.
A memorable NBA upset seems to come along about once every five years (the Pistons beating the Lakers in the 2004 Finals, the eighth-seeded Knicks' run to the 1999 Finals and the Nuggets' opening-round upset of the No. 1 Sonics in '94). This spring it's highly probable that the Pistons will meet either the Spurs or the Mavericks in the Finals -- an outcome that will validate the dominance of those teams during the long regular season. "They play the whole year to get that home court advantage," says NBA senior VP of basketball operations Stu Jackson. "A seven-game series assures that the best teams are going to win."
But wouldn't shortening each series to five games introduce a sense of unpredictability and force more attention on each game? League officials insist that unexpected outcomes are not part of their equation. When the Board of Governors voted to shift the length of opening-round series from best of five to best of seven, the issue of the playoffs becoming more predictable "never came up," says a senior league official. "No one ever mentioned it. It was all about increasing revenues."