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The blog Shea Faithful interviewed the godfather of baseball statistics, Bill James (via Deadspin), who is now a senior baseball operations advisor to the Boston Red Sox. (Bill James on Wikipedia.)
James was asked about the oddity of St. Louis barely sneaking into playoffs and then winning the World Series. This was his response:
I'm not a great fan of the Wild Card. But it is tremendously important, for the health of the sport, that the best team doesn't always win. That's the real problem with the NBA ... the best team is going to win in the long run, and everybody knows it. The season becomes a long, crushing battle in which, ultimately, you have no chance to escape justice ... as opposed to college basketball, which is vastly more exciting, simply because you never know who will win, and therefore have to do everything you can do to maximize your chance. In the NBA you don't really HAVE a chance to win, if you're not one of the two or three best teams, and everybody knows this on some level ... therefore, why play hard, why dive for the ball on the floor, why fight for the rebound, why sacrifice your body to score a point, when you ultimately can't win. No sport can survive if the best team always wins.
I see his point. For much of recent history Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal have been more or less taking turns winning titles. Before that there was the Michael Jordan era, the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson era, and the Bill Russell era etc.
But is Bill James really right? Just to make sure, I'd like him to prove it. I'd like him to identify those two or three teams at the beginning of every NBA season for us. Did he really pick Larry Brown's starless 2004 Pistons? Last year's Miami Heat? (As a Portland fan, I have to throw in the 1977 Blazers, too.) 'Cause if he did, I want to know who's on his list for this year. Probably not a leap to guess Dallas, Phoenix, and San Antonio.
But what happens if Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal are motivated and healthy? What happens if LeBron James is possessed again? What happens if Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming -- or, for that matter, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur -- have another gear? What happens if Kobe Bryant's Lakers find their groove?
I'd say it's entirely possible any or all of those three favorite teams could go down in any round, and it will absolutely come down to who's diving on the floor and all that. Remember, Bonzi Wells and company almost slayed Tim Duncan's Spurs last year, and no one is going to convince me it wasn't great fun to watch.