Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Twenty-Seven Percent

Zooming out a little bit from the team vs. team analysis tonight because I got a chance to listen to the radio a lot today. Apparently in Boston, the sky is falling because the Celtics are playing themselves out of the second seed. The reasons for it can be debated (and I'm sure I can take a break from commenting tomorrow because it probably will be), but one of the arguments is that this team is coasting and resting their bodies for the playoffs, where they can flip the proverbial switch. This can only happen in baseball rarely, and while I don't like to give Commissioner Selig much credit for anything except for the strike and the steroid problem, it is hard to kill him for the way the playoffs are set up. Of course, Selig and his fellow money-grubbing owners are thinking of messing this equilibrium up with the addition of extra wild-card play-in games. But the playoff format of the last sixteen (should be seventeen - nice work, Bud) seasons very well might be the best in sports.

Just under 27% of the teams starting a baseball season end up in the playoffs. I'd like to contrast this to the NBA and the NHL, where, respectively, 50% and 53% of the teams get in. Talk about rewarding mediocrity. I haven't seen anything like this since I read the class notes in Colby Magazine or the last time I ran a half-marathon. In hockey, you can be WORSE THAN AVERAGE and still go to the playoffs. Look at Montreal a few years ago - they made it far in the playoffs despite being worse than average. You can complain all you want about the St. Louis Cardinals a few years back, but at least they won more games than they lost. In basketball, there are all these teams who get in but have no shot at winning anything. Is that anything short of a waste of time? In these two leagues, too many undeserving teams make it in. I'll come out and say that this applies in football as well. Pete Carroll coached more than 16 this year. In baseball, bad teams rarely have a chance to play for a title. And while this stinks by the time August comes around for fans in Pittsburgh, fans of good teams are rewarded by exciting playoff races, because good teams can also be left out. That's dramatic (no sarcasm).

Because of the dilution of playoff eligibility in these sports, the postseason goes on forever. It's going to snow in a few days, there are only nine basketball games left, and the NBA Finals will last until the summer solstice. Twenty percent of a calendar year features the NBA playoffs. Is there anything special about this season? I can't keep my compete level that high to stay pumped up as a spectator. Baseball's playoffs, despite the fact that Bud Selig defers to reruns of The Steve Harvey Show and So You Think You Can Dance, still carry a novelty, as they only consume 8% of the calendar year. The point I want to get to (and I should put this up higher so that people short on time don't skim this article and miss it) is the fact that there are basketball teams that are coasting big-time, and have been coasting for a month. The playoff prerequisites are so soft that teams can dog it 1/3 of the year and still put themselves in a good position. That stinks.

Imagine if you went to a game last year when the Celtics or Bruins didn't show up to play and therefore laid an egg. Sorry Lavar Arrington, you're not getting your money back. This might happen in 1-2 games in the NFL, and it happens for a month tops for only the elite of the elite baseball teams. Right now, a quarter of basketball teams and more than a quarter of hockey teams are just coasting. While in baseball, you see the bad teams coasting at this point of the season and giving the young players a chance to play. After all, minor-league pitchers pitching in September are why Red Sox fans think 46 is a good baseball player. But there are, what, six teams in each sport who are playing at a high compete level right now? That sucks. In September baseball, a third of teams are at least thinking about the four-man rotation.

That's my point. Limiting playoff participation to 27% and making September count is one of the few bright spots of Bud Selig's career as commissioner.


Anonymous said...

I think the effectiveness of post-season formats can be answered with one single question- name the number of memorable regular season games you can recall for a particular team/league/season. For me, and for most, the answers come easily for the NFL (the Pats played about 10 this year, for starters) and dwindle quickly from there.

10/18 = 55.55%

The NBA sucks, plainly, and it should not. The games are generally good to the all-star break and then, from then on, teams can see the path and fall into one of these categories: resting up, shell of pre-trade selves, injured, uninterested, mutiny, no chemistry after big trade, or playing hard all the way to the end. Lots of categories there for dull hoops, don't we think? A European model of 58 games (as in double round robin) with an in-season tournament or two would fit nicely because good teams would get jacked-up for each other when they only got one crack at them at home (look at how good the first Knicks-Celts game was, or how the elite East-West games generally live up to the hype) while not wearing themselves out playing Indiana or Toronto or Detroit 45 times each month. Of course, I cannot blame the Celtics for coasting now- what a ridiculous travel schedule to end the year.

Did Seattle deserve to make it? Yes, I think so, but only because their inclusion, paradoxically, creates credibility in the other division races. The Saints-Falcons duel down the stretch was compelling not just for the bye week but the entirely ridiculous travel itinerary that would result- two home games in three weeks vs. three road games in three. So, to rail on about Seattle (not that you were, DV, but I've heard plenty of it elsewhere) would mean that you are agreeing that Jets-Pats, Ravens-Steelers, the entire NFC East (minus 'skins) and so on all should be rendered meaningless just so some scrub-hub 10-6 team can take a wild card place while the Saints and Falcons hit the beach for Round one. No thanks, I'll take six strong division fights in exchange for one lousy playoff team- that won! And won with the best running TD I can remember, to boot. Wait, what's the complaint here? As for those fans, well, Sounders fans have to keep warm in the winter, I suppose.


Anonymous said...

On the NBA, should add 'trying the young guys' into my categories and should clarify that I think in basketball the first meeting in a city is important but after that the teams cannot be bothered. In other words, I see 58 games as almost an entertainment 'maximum' for the regular season- after that, who cares, we've seen this movie before, and I think the players get the same way when they have to rub headbands with Boobie Gibsons and Roy Hibberts for the twelfth time.

Baseball, naturally, can get away with more games due to its nature whereas I do not exercise rational thought regarding hockey- this is the one sport where I could watch a game in an arena with a broken scoreboard for ten minutes and come nowhere near identifying what the period is, how much time remains, what the score is, and what's at stake.

The NFL is probably a perfect marriage of entertainment, fairness, and profit, naturally, a lockout ensues.

The WNBA should encourage its players to tweet more.

The GM said...

Yeah, I'm bumping this back to the top. I think there's discussion to be had on this topic.

Anonymous said...


You could cut the NBA playoffs down to four teams in each conference. In the East, which is very, very top heavy, that would make great sense. And in fact, in the last 30 years, only one champion, the '95 Rockets, would have missed the playoffs with that format. So it's not like you'd be preventing legitimate contenders from competing for a championship.

Under this scenario, the playoffs would look like this:


That looks awesome. Those are some great teams and some entertaining match-ups. The problem is that the NBA would miss out on a ton of revenue. Not only the league, but the owners of the teams fighting for 5-8 playoff spots and playoff home games and all the money that comes with at least two extra games each year. Money usually wins out (as it should). So while the thought of a more elite playoff system is intriguing, it will probably never happen.

--the Gunn

Patrick said...

gm, this couldn't be more on point and neither could these comments. gunn's stat about only one champion in the last 30 years missing out if we cut the playoffs in half (think about how big a reduction that is!) is pretty much all you need to know. not that i don't love the rare time when a low seed makes a run (the knicks being the only 8 seed to ever reach the finals playing a role in this) or the inevitable dynamite first round playoff series we get every year. i do. but i'd be willing to sacrifice those things to get more compelling regular season basketball. some of timc's suggestions on this point are excellent.

the bottom line is, 8 teams making the playoffs in each conference is too inclusive. it leads to the best teams coasting by game 50 in some cases. it also leads to an ALL too long playoffs (you should be able to get things started and finished in 4-6 weeks in all sports). condensing the playoffs not only makes it more manageable, but would also probably enhance the playoffs. instead of watching a great celtics/heat conference semi-final on monday and having to wait until thursday for the next game, we get to turn it around and do it all again the next night. before emotions subside. before bodies get time to rest. are the heat mentally tough enough to bounceback from a loss the next night? are the celtics physically capable of winning 4 games in 7 days? because at the end of the day those are the qualities championship teams are made of. and while there is an element of sustaining "marathon-style" to win an nba championship, you don't get to really find out a lot of these qualities when the playoffs is really just a mini-regular season. that's what the nba playoffs is, and quite frankly i'm less impressed by teams that win the nba than i would be under more typical playoff circumstances.

we need to get rid of some teams and we need to push the schedule and get more games in less days. as gunn said though, neither of things will happen because of money. cutting teams means owners and the league losing money and playing a tighter schedule means tv stations losing money because less games can be broadcast.

Patrick said...

*are the celtics capable of holding up over 4 games in 7 days is what i meant to say. obviously you aren't playing 7 games in 7 days, that's too much. but we need something between that and what we currently have.

the gm at work said...

I knew there was a good discussion to be had here. Gunn, your '95 Rockets fact is astounding.

I understand all the points about the money, and that's why people are pushing for more crappy teams in baseball getting in and more crappy teams in college basketball getting in. I don't want to even go there with the 68 basketball teams. I love capitalism, but when it makes an inferior product in a monopolistic market (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL), as the consumer, that pisses me off. Because what am I supposed to do, watch the alternative? There IS no alternative.

I'm not going to pretend I know anything about the NBA landscape, but is there really anything compelling about the Bulls playing some barely-.500 team in the first round? No. That just wastes two weeks of my life. The Knicks are the six-seed. Okay. The fact that the trade took so long to go down is largely a product of how the team could just JD out for most of the season and still make it to the playoffs.

the gm at work said...

And, TimC, the only reason I mentioned Seattle is because everyone knows how much I think Pete Carroll sucks. That's not an indictment of the NFL system (they have it right more than anyone except for baseball); it's just an indictment of Carroll.

Rocci said...

Guys -

Let me start off by stating that I'm an unapologetic NBA fanboy, and there have definitely been some memorable 1st round series that we'd be missing out on by cutting out the first round of the playoffs. Think 2009 Celtics-Bulls, 2007 Mavs-Warriors, and who can forget Dikembo Mutumbo awesome celebration when the 94 Nuggets took down the top-seeded Sonics. That being said, I too am completely against the playoff format as it's set up right now. I would much prefer a 4 or 6 team in each conference playoff. Hell, I'd even be open to a complete reseed, merging together Eastern and Western conference teams in the final playoff pool.

However, I think if you guys are looking for more meaningful regular season games, the root issue is the length of the regular season. 82 games is just too long, and if you believe in the coasting myth (I don't), then you gotta think that players will play with more urgency because each game will mean that much more. (Side note: this is where I think baseball fails as well; half the games halfway into the season are completely meaningless because so many teams have nothing to play for).

Anyways, the point I'm trying to make is reducing the number of regular season games would be the real solution if you're worried about watching a diluted product, but it will never happen because the owners will lose a shit-ton of cash-money in reducing the amount of games. Oh well.

PS: Dan, the team the Bulls will play in the first round will not be over .500.

Anonymous said...


You're right--there have been some terrific first round NBA series over the past 20 years or so, especially between 1-8 and 2-7 match-ups, with Celtics/Pacers in 1991, Suns/Lakers in 1993, Rockets/Jazz in 1995 (that was a 3-6), Heat/Knics in 1999, Celtics/Sixers in 2002 (also 3-6), and all of the match-ups you mentioned as well. And without the 16 team playoff format, none of those would have happened. However, to get those gems, you also had to sit through four times as many ugly 3-0 or 4-0 sweeps by the Bulls over the Nets and Spurs over the Grizzlies. And nobody wants that.

Speaking to your point about dilution, the best way to fix that would be to contract a few teams. Still play 82 games, but get rid of the Grizzlies, Raptors, Bobcats and Hornets (none of those teams have any real history and I don't believe they are doing well financially, either). That would put players like Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Andrea Bargnani, Chris Paul, David West, Mike Conley, Demar Derozan, Stephen Jackson, and DJ Augustin on other rosters. None of those guys are franchise guys, but they would certainly add depth and talent to already talented teams and increase the overall level of play.

--the Gunn

Rocci said...

Gunn -

Ugly series can happen in every playoff round, not just the Round of 16. It happens, and it's pointless to try to prevent them. Sometimes a team just doesn't match up with another team very well. No one's forcing you to watch those first round games if you don't care, and is forcing a top seed to take out a bottom seed necessarily a bad thing? It gets the fans of more teams involved and caring, and that's not a bad thing for the growth of the game.

I'm dead against contraction. The quality of play would slightly improve, but not enough to justify cutting out the fanbases of 4 teams in the league. Who's to say players like Conley or Augustin would be effective at all if they spend their time on the bench of a more talented team without the opportunity to develop their skills? One thing to consider is no matter the size of the league, there are always going to be "good" and "bad" teams - it's just all relative.

Off-topic, but for fuck's sake, does Anaheim really need to steal Sacramento's basketball team when they have two others playing an hour away?

Anonymous said...


The only reason that Anaheim should get the Kings is if the fans in Sacramento aren't supporting their team and making staying in Sacramento an economically unfeasible situation. It's also sad to think that a team that was very much a title contender in the very recent past may relocate. Also, can LA even support three teams? I don't know enough about the area. I mean, sure it's huge and highly populated, but the Clippers haven't historically drawn well (though they are horribly run). Makes you wonder how that would all turn out.

As to contraction, the teams I chose really don't have much in the way of fan bases. Those are the teams we often hear of that are struggling financially because they don't draw well enough (which is especially damning for the Hornets because they have a star player and have had success in recent years). We hear so much about how these 'super-teams' are ultimately good for the league, that it's interesting to think of what the league would look like if a guy like Chris Paul played with the Magic and the Mavericks had Rudy Gay. The NBA would never allow teams to be contracted (because David Stern would see it as a sign of admitting defeat) anyway, so the point is moot, but any time you can increase the odds that a team will have a top-flight player, the quality of play is going to get better.

--the Gunn