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A SECOND CHANCE FOR THE CAVS?
When the NBA board of governors meets in Coronado, Calif. later this month, it will consider a proposal for a split-season playoff format similar to the one that baseball wound up with in its strike-marred 1981 season. The split season's chief proponent, Detroit Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey, views the scheme as a way of infusing the NBA with the extra shot of excitement it so obviously needs. The league's attendance and television ratings have been sluggish, its 82-game regular season seems to drag on interminably and the disparity between have and have-not teams has helped put a number of franchises in deep financial trouble.
Under McCloskey's proposal, the NBA season would be divided into two 41-game halves broken by the All-Star Game. As at present, 12 of the 23 NBA teams, six from each of the two conferences, would qualify for the playoffs. Divisional winners in each half would automatically receive playoff berths, with byes going to teams that win both halves or, in the case of different divisional winners, have the best records for a half season. The remaining playoff spots would be filled by teams with the best records in either half season.
Had McCloskey's proposal been in effect this season, there would have been no change in the 12 playoff qualifiers. "Nine out of 10 times you'd get the same teams under either format," McCloskey concedes. "The teams that will most likely win both halves—the Bostons and Philadelphias—will be there year after year. But the plan would create a stimulus for the have-nots. Several teams are completely out of the playoff picture after 20 or 25 games. This would give new life to teams that are young or that suffer injuries early in the season."
There's already a lively debate over the concept of an NBA split season. Joe Axelson, vice-president for NBA operations, who on July 1 will become the Kansas City Kings' general manager, calls it "an interesting idea." Washington General Manager Bob Ferry feels it would only create confusion. Others complain that a split season has minor league connotations; Celtic G.M. Red Auerbach calls it "stupid and bush." A more specific objection is that the possibility of earning a playoff bye by winning both halves might not provide sufficient incentive for a first-half winner to try its utmost during the season's second half. In baseball's split season, some of the first-half winners, having already sewed up playoff berths, practically sleepwalked through the second season. Partly for that reason, fans had trouble taking the split-season races seriously, and attendance and TV ratings suffered.
Baseball fans, of course, traditionally tend to resist gimmicks that dilute regular-season races. In contrast, the NBA has taken a more-the-merrier approach to playoffs, from which relatively few teams are eliminated during the regular season. But that's exactly why a split season in the NBA may be superfluous. This season Atlanta, Washington and New Jersey all struggled early because of injuries or inexperience, but all rallied to earn playoff berths; with so many berths available, no second season was necessary to qualify them for postseason play. Only five clubs—Kansas City, Utah, Dallas, Cleveland and San Diego—were drummed out of playoff contention early. The real issue is whether teams as poorly run as San Diego and Cleveland deserve the chance of a second season. Those feckless franchises must be overhauled if the NBA hopes to correct the competitive imbalance that's at the root of most of the league's ills. Adopting a split season would treat a symptom of those ills, not the causes.
CLAIM TO FAME
SLIDING INTO THE POT ROAST
A commercial now being aired in Baltimore features Oriole Third Base Coach Cal Ripken Sr. at the family dinner table with Cal Ripken Jr., the Birds' third baseman. As sometimes happens during Oriole games, the elder Ripken is busily flashing signs to his son. When the father, after touching his cap, rubbing his chest and so on, asks if the son recalls the meaning of that sequence of gestures, the latter replies, "Sure, that's the sign for 'Pass the peas.' "
Cal Sr. presses on. "Remember this one?" he asks, wigwagging another sign.