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Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Updated: April 19, 11:31 AM ET
Kick-starter

By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine

Bryant Illo
Using the EPL model, every game in the NBA playoffs would actually mean something.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 29 NFL Draft issue. Subscribe today!

IT'S UNCLEAR WHICH of the Ten Commandments dictates that the NBA season must be 82 games. But this new trend of coaches resting perfectly healthy players -- a beautiful example of civil disobedience initiated by San Antonio's Gregg Popovich -- reinforces the truth that the road to the Finals is an extended wasteland in need of reinvention.

The players must pace themselves, which means, for the sake of actually winning in June, they cannot always give maximum effort in the regular season -- and probably shouldn't bother anyway when 53 percent of the league (16 of 30 teams) makes the postseason. The coaches, like Popovich and Miami's Erik Spoelstra, recognize the season's illegitimacy too, risking fines and the wrath of David Stern, who really should direct his anger at the closest mirror because he created this system. (Of course, the biggest loser is, as always, the customer paying to see Tim Duncan and LeBron James but getting Matt Bonner and Shane Battier.)

The NBA spectacle only gets more bloated in the playoffs, which last a full two months. That's 20 percent of the entire season. After six months, it shouldn't take another 60 days to crown a champion. The first round in particular is the biggest waste of time in sports. There is little drama (top seed Dallas losing to eighth-seeded Golden State in 2007 notwithstanding), and outside of grinding the players into powder for broadcast money, no point. Stretched for TV, it can take as long as two weeks, and it leaves underdogs with virtually no chance of a sustained run. The last time a team seeded sixth or lower won consecutive series was in 1999, when the Knicks made it to the Finals as a No. 8 seed.

From 1984 to 2002, when the first round was a best-of-five, the top three seeds won 86 percent of the time. In 2003 the NBA, selling magic beans to the public, expanded the first round to seven games -- to legitimize the effort of good teams in the regular season, or so said Stern with a straight face. The result was the same: The top three seeds have won 85 percent of the time since then. Compare this to the NHL, a league with an intense first round. Since 2003, only 67 percent of the top three seeds have advanced.

The NBA likes to pretend the draft lottery is the dividing line between winning teams and rebuilding ones. But that line is an illusion meant to mask the mediocrity of all those perennial 38- to 44-victory teams that advance to the postseason, emptily claim a successful season, get slaughtered to the surprise of absolutely no one, rinse and repeat for the next season. As a recent Onion newswire put it, after Milwaukee clinched a postseason berth with a losing record: "Bucks qualify for first-round elimination from playoffs."

What the NBA needs is the courage to revolutionize. The best solution is to go English soccer and split the league into a Championship and a Premier League, so the best teams play one another exclusively and the weaker teams must improve to graduate to the adult table. The length of season could remain the same, but only the upper-division teams would be eligible to contend for the NBA championship. Suddenly, every game would actually mean something.

There are less radical remedies, though. For much of the past 15 years, the league has suffered from the massive imbalance of a weak Eastern Conference and a terrifically competitive Western. So for the playoffs, the NBA should simply do away with conferences and let the top 12 teams play in a super-postseason (half the league qualifying is too generous). The Celtics might play the Lakers before the Finals; the Heat might collide with the Thunder. And although, under this idea, eight of the 12 playoff teams in the 2010-11 season would have come from the Western Conference, the quality would improve (Memphis, as the theoretical No. 12 seed, won 46 games that year). Meanwhile, more people would watch; the good teams would be challenged immediately and wouldn't have to risk injury in a meaningless playoff series (see Rose, Derrick); and the league's flabby underbelly would actually be forced to win more games to be relevant.

Teams would have to compete to belong.

What a concept.

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