The NBA Playoffs Are Anyone's Ballgame. That's Not All A Good Thing.

Apr 23 2014, 2:24pm CDT | by

Let’s hear it for the underdogs in the early going of the NBA playoffs. And maybe the start of a new era of parity that stands to deliver more postseason games to the league and its networks.

The Memphis Grizzlies, seeded No. 7 in the west, split two games in Oklahoma City. The Atlanta Hawks, bottom seed in the east, did the same at Indiana. Both No. 6 seeds, Golden State and Brooklyn, also got road splits in their first two games against the L.A. Clippers and Toronto, respectively. Meantime, superpowers Miami and San Antonio both needed big efforts to pull out competitive opening home game wins in their series.

The playoffs are just getting started – maybe the Heat, Thunder and Spurs will wind up rolling along as usual. But the early returns suggest that the collective bargaining agreement of 2011, a big result of which was a more punitive luxury tax on big spenders going over the salary cap, is tightening the competition.

The Lakers, who didn’t bring back Dwight Howard (and didn’t replace him) and Celtics, who jettisoned aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to pursue a rebuilding effort, have fallen by the wayside for now. The Heat and Thunder are still very strong, but clearly a little past their peaks. At the same time, lower tier teams have improved with impactful imports over the past couple of seasons – Charlotte with Al Jefferson, Atlanta with DeMarre Carroll, Washington with Trevor Ariza and Memphis with Mike Miller, a three-point specialist not retained by Miami, which trimmed payroll a bit from last year’s championship team. Suddenly, no one seems to have dibs on the NBA Finals.

From the league’s perspective, the emerging dynamic is both good and bad. First the good: unlike the NCAA tournament, a finite bracket that produces 67 games – no more, no less – the NBA playoffs are a different ballgame, four rounds of four-out-of-seven.  The two-month postseason can yield as few as 60 games and as many as 105 games. And while the only real television X-factor for March Madness is the brand strength of the teams that advance, all the pro hoops networks – ABC/ESPN, TNT, NBA TV and various local RSNs, stand to grab a lot more programming from a lengthy, competitive playoff season.

The bad: letting all those teams into the picture is risky. You’d love the Bobcats to push the Heat to a seventh game in the first round – no one is going to complain about a Game Seven, or about more chances to showcase LeBron James – but you don’t want them to actually win. The perfect formula is a lot of games with the cream ultimately rising for, say, a Miami-Oklahoma City (i,e. LeBron-Kevin Durant)  final. Of course the league can worry about the Finals when they get here. For right now, toss up the ball for the next game, and enjoy the show. The more the merrier.

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