Wednesday , Jun , 13 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

NBA Finals: Underrated

The NBA Finals are underrated.

The term, in this case, isn’t being used in its normal context, however. I’m not specifically saying that people are judging the quality of the Finals too harshly, although some may interpret it that way. What I’m referring to is literally ratings – television ratings.

NBA Finals: Underrated

Now granted, I personally have never put much faith in Nielsen and his boys (the cats who track the television ratings), but when people tell me the ratings for the Finals are some of the worst they have ever been, I’m not exactly able to refute that claim. When Mike and Mike, ESPN, and my local news talk about the finale of HBO’s The Sopranos more than they dish discussion on the NBA Finals, you know something is wrong. Granted, you wouldn’t expect a first half blow out to compete with the final episode of one of the greatest television shows in history, but at least the game had a real ending.

Ratings are just numbers, and not entirely accurate numbers for that matter, but the lack of attention the Finals are getting tips off a bigger issue. Namely, what do people want from their hoops entertainment, and furthermore, what are they missing? By my estimation, no, we aren’t seeing the most exciting brand of basketball thus far, but we are seeing some damn fine play at least on one side. And no matter who wins, we’re watching a piece of history – the fourth title in nine years for the forming dynasty. The real question isn’t why aren’t people watching, it’s what are they missing.

The young point guard. Tony Parker has been brilliant in this series. With respect to Duncan and LeBron, Parker has been the best player in this series. I can remember back in ’03 when the Spurs met the Nets in the Finals, Parker was thoroughly outplayed by Jason Kidd in most of the games, with only the occasional sign of life from the French point guard. I remember saying then that if Tony couldn’t gain some consistency, he would never be an All-Star level player. In 2005 against the Pistons we saw more of the same, a few nice games, and then he’d drop off the face of the earth. We’ve seen a level of consistency from Parker in these Finals, and throughout the playoffs, that was previously unheard of.

Parker has been getting to the rim at will against Cleveland, attacking in every way imaginable – off the pick and roll, isolations, transition, finishing with acrobatic layups and falling away flips over his head that go in more often than they should. And he even nails a jumper every now and then too. People clamor that they want quick, exciting guards who score and yet so often Parker is overlooked. Parker gets into the lane and scores more than anyone in the league, including the guys with Iverson, Bryant, James, and Wade on the back of their jerseys, yet it’s considered preposterous to make those kind of comparisons. The only thing that kept me from making this kind of statement in the past was Parker’s consistency issues, but having watched him step up big through three games on the biggest stage, I can confidently say Parker is a top three point guard in this league. Not only that, Parker is simply one of the most watchable players around, if people took the time to pay attention.

The one they call king. I made a rule for myself, and everyone I could tell it to for that matter, back in LeBron’s rookie season: never miss an opportunity to watch a LeBron James game. And while the Spurs and their stifling defense are trying to do everything in their power to make my rule seem null and void, that still doesn’t excuse why people aren’t tuning in to watch one of the great young players in the league.

What happened to all the jubilation over LeBron making it to the Finals? Everyone on a network and a blog made such a huge deal about the ‘face of the league’ making it to the Finals and how it was going to be so good for the NBA. Well here we are three games in with the Cavs on the verge of being swept and I don’t exactly feel LeBron fever sweeping the country. I got eyes too, I see LeBron hasn’t played up to the level he performed at in the Detroit series, but so far as I know the game one ratings of the Finals were low to begin with. People aren’t not watching because LeBron isn’t playing well, people by and large just aren’t watching the Finals, they never were.

Which forces me to ask the question: what the fuck is wrong with these people? I’m not speaking to you, the readers. I think it’s safe to assume anyone reading this is a hoops fan and has indeed been watching at least most of the Finals. I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about your neighbors, co-workers, and family. This was supposed to be their series, this was supposed to be the accessible series for the casual fan and yet I don’t think anyone told this invisible congregation of casual fans.

I’m not trying to defend LeBron or the way he’s played. If LeBron was smoking cats like he did in the Eastern Conference Finals the buzz would be huge and nobody would be able to ignore it. But unfortunately the reverse thinking does not apply. The ratings are not low due to LeBron’s lack of game, because no one was watching him or anyone else in this series to begin with. And that’s just a damn shame. For all we know LBJ is going off for forty tomorrow to hold off a sweep, unlikely, but possible nonetheless and the potential alone should be enough to get eyeballs on the screens. No LeBron isn’t playing well, but if you’re hoops fan you watch anyway, and if you’re a casual fan you should also watch, he’s here for you, you’re supposed to watch.

The Big Fundamental. Tim Duncan is about to win his fourth ring, and no matter how bored you are by his fundamentals-only game or lay back persona, he is the greatest power forward to ever play the game of basketball. No offense to LeBron, but the real player we should all be witnesses to is Tim Duncan. You can say what you want about his complete lack of flair or his free-throw shooting (the only real weakness in his game), but the truth is Duncan is at least a once a decade player, and someone we shouldn’t be taking for granted.

When we watch Tim Duncan, we’re watching history. We’re witnessing a player that future generations will wish they could have seen play. If the Spurs get one more win, Duncan will already have more rings than players like Shaq, Bird, and Isiah, with more likely to come – that’s not something we should be missing for any reason.

People say what the league needs to attract more viewers and fans is a great players, who make historical accomplishments, and are good all around people on top of that. So why do we ignore Duncan? I understand no one is going to grab the popcorn and passionately cheer for Duncan’s slow motion bank shots and jump hooks, but if we’re going to lament all the flashy play and lack of fundamentals and cite it as a bad influence on the game, then you can’t also complain about Duncan or that makes it all a contradiction. We can’t have it both ways. Duncan is an all-time great players, a stand up citizen, and when he takes over a game I don’t find it all that hard to watch him, even kind of fun if you give it a chance. But then that’s a big if…

What the people want. First and foremost, the general non-basketball public, and even some who call themselves fans, want the Spurs out of the Finals. The Spurs won game three by outscoring Cleveland 75-72, making it the lowest winning score for any team in the Finals, ever. And all the Spurs did was break their old record. In fact, five of the six lowest winning scores in Finals history all belong to the Spurs, and they’ve only been to four finals, which means they give one or two historically low scoring performances each time they’re on the league’s largest stage. San Antonio is the quintessential old school team, the epitome of no flash-no fun. And while the basketball purest can watch them and appreciate their unbelievably consistent effectiveness, they are a turn off to most people. The league and people in San Antonio can try to spin this anyway they want, I don’t care how many championships the Spurs win, no one outside of the Alamo city wants to see this team in the Finals again, ever. Too bad, because I doubt Popovich and Duncan are through just yet.

What the largest demographic of potential fans want, and thus what the league wants, is the exact opposite of the Spurs. They want basketball that is fast, flashy, and high flying, the kind of things you only get from the Spurs occasionally and in short bursts. Essentially what people want is the Phoenix Suns, and the Denver Nuggets, and the Golden State Warriors. They want lots of dunks, alley-oops, and 120 point games. That’s fair enough, I enjoy all those things as much as anyone. In a perfect world, that style of play would be in the NBA Finals, and everyone would be happy. Where things get tricky is in distinguishing what is entertaining and what is effective. The Spurs can beat all those teams I just named, in fact they did beat two of them in these playoffs already. As much as I’d like to say different, the run and gun (aka hustle and flow) style of play simply isn’t the most effective, and more often than not the down and dirty, grind it out, defense first style of play is going to win out. The league has openly tried to manipulate this for years now, changing interpretations of rules and officiating emphasis, and yet once again the Spurs are in the Finals, poised to win another ring.

Styles of play aside, one can only hope that the formula for attracting the most viewers is actually a simple one: get the two best teams to play in the Finals no matter what. This shouldn’t be hard, and yet stuck in stubbornness and antiquity the league will likely never make the appropriate changes. The answer, if the issue of the league’s wide appeal problems really has just one answer, is to ensure that the two best teams play in the Finals, regardless of conference or seeding.

People have mentioned this before, and while it sounds as far fetched as the first time I heard it, recent experiences are leading me to believe it is the best course of action. The league should seed the playoffs 1-16 and have a straight up tournament of the best sixteen teams, regardless of conference or division. The best teams from both conferences would still make it, so the only teams that really suffer here are the bubble teams in the east, which is a small price to pay for an overall richer, deeper, more competitive tournament. And furthermore to ensure the best teams make it to the Finals, the playoffs should be re-seeded with every passing round so that the higher seeds don’t meet until the later rounds (assuming there is no underdog team consistently winning).

Complaints would start to fly immediately if something like this was even proposed, and the owners would never let it go through, but considering the Finals are about to be a sweep, and the two best teams played in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, maybe it’s about time the league starts looking at making some serious changes.

And ultimately, if changes are made and they don’t work, no one will be watching anyway. What have we got to lose?