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The Problem with Playoffs

As I watch the NBA and NHL seasons winding down, I have been thinking about how many teams have stopped caring about winning, and instead are just trying to avoid injuries. So many teams in both leagues clinch a playoff berth or home field advantage and immediately rest their players. Now, if you’re a team ranked around 4-6 in each conference, I can understand resting players. Those teams have no shot at winning the league and thus have nothing really to play for, but for teams ranked above them that do have a chance to have the best record in their sport, why are you resting players?

The most underrated part of American Sports is the idea of how much more important the playoffs are than the regular season. Why is a team that does well during a 3-week stretch deemed the champion over a team that does well during a 5-month stretch? Why does a team that gets a couple lucky bounces in 15 games in the playoffs “better” than a team that is the best over the course of an entire season? The champion of soccer leagues throughout the rest of the world is considered to be the team who accumulates the most points (best record) throughout the entire season.

Now, like the metric system, doesn’t that make a lot more sense?

Here’s a simplified, fictional scenario to prove my point:

Kobe and LeBron each carry their teams and without them the Lakers and Cavs respectively would be in trouble. Each player has to sit out 8 games, because of injury. Kobe gets hurt in December and misses 8 regular season games, causing the Lakers to finish the season 4 games behind Cleveland for the best record in the NBA. LeBron unfortunately gets injured during the Eastern Conference Championship. The Cavs manage to make the NBA Finals, but are beaten by the Lakers, who now have Kobe. The Lakers are the champions even though the finals pitted two teams on unequal ground. Each team lost their star, the player whom they cannot win without, for 8 games. The Cavaliers were just unlucky in the fact that LeBron’s injury came during the playoffs.

Why should the Lakers be considered the “champion”, the best team in the NBA during the 2009 season? That’s not to say that the Cavs should be deemed champion, because they had the best record. The same logic an be used to show that. However, calling the Lakers the champion is just as wrong.

The problem with that scenario is that the sport needs to determine a champion and that is too simple to declare one. Let’s take a look at a different aspect of it: Depth.

If we consider that Kobe and LeBron are nearly of equal-caliber players, than the team with the better role players, the better depth, should be the better team. Say that the Cavs have better depth, but without LeBron, they still cannot beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Lakers are declared Champion and the Cavs, even though they are the better team, receive nothing. Now, the best team is not the “champion”.

If we place the NBA in a European system, LeBron and Kobe now miss the same 2 weeks during the season. During that time, the Cavs go 4-4 while the Lakers go 3-5, because Cleveland has better depth (as we assumed). Assuming all else is equal, Cleveland will end the year with a better record and, since we are in a European system, will be declared champion.

The exact same teams, the exact same “lucky”, but in two different systems. In the American system, the second-best team is deemed the champion while the European system correctly calls the best team the champion. Which do you want?

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