The NBA Is Back

Something happened about a week ago. I was watching Sportscenter and they mentioned that Shaq’s first game in a Suns uniform would come next Wednesday (2/20) in Phoenix against the Lakers. For the first time in three years I found myself thinking “that’s a much watch” about an regular-season NBA game.

I don’t watch the NBA regular season. Even this time of year when I moan and complain about how much the period between the Super Bowl and Opening Day sucks I never watch either the NBA. In my own stupid head, there’s good reason for this: most of the time, by now, the playoff picture in the NBA is pretty well set. In a league where more than half the league makes the playoffs, a good portion of the post-All Star Break NBA regular season is pointless.

The 2007-2008 NBA East is a microcosm of why I don’t watch regular season NBA. Right now the league 50-55 games into their regular season. In the East, the best teams are already clear. Eight teams will make the playoffs, but the finals will likely be some combination of the Celtics, Pistons, and (now) the Cavs. Really, what’s even the point of watching Eastern Conference games anymore. The conference is likely to send two under-.500 teams to the playoffs where they will be summarily destroyed by the contenders. The East is a perfect example of why expansion, a stupid salary cap system, and so many teams making the playoffs has really hurt the league. There are three likely contenders and a pile of awful and I’ve never been a fan of watching meaningless games. It has never helped that I don’t have a dog in the fight. I grew up in a world where half my family liked the Lakers and the other half liked the Celtics. I never got in to either team and I never got in to the Knicks or Nets. The best I could ever do is pick a random team that no one else liked. I spent time with the Los Angeles Clippers (used to play in Buffalo), the Sixers (used to play in Syracuse), the Kings (used to play in Rochester), and the Warriors (because they were called Golden State… it didn’t take much). Not being invested in a team makes it hard to follow through a season when the games stop mattering.

But then someone determined that it was time to start consolidating talent in the West. Crappy teams suddenly realized that holding a super star in a max contract destroys their ability to rebuild. The Nets, after the awful Vince Carter signing, realized that they’re a 30-win team this year and an aging Jason Kidd doesn’t make their prospects next year any better. The Heat realized that Shaq was on the decline and they are far further than one step away from contention and determined they needed to start over. The East created a max exodus of aging talent, shipped them west to a bunch of teams who feel they were, in fact, one piece away from a championship. Teams in the east have entering a rebuilding phase. On top of that, teams in the West who know they are far away also started trading in the conference. The Bucks inexplicably sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers. The Rockets sent parts to the Hornets. Chaos!

Now, all of the sudden, the West is exciting. The West is so good that there’s an honest-to-God chance that a 50-win team might not make the playoffs. 50 wins! There are nine teams in the West playing .600 basketball. Granted, we already know which teams are the contenders in the West and which teams aren’t, but we’re talking about an outside possibility of a 50-win team being in the Lottery and getting the first pick in the draft!

The NBA is managing to be exciting in spite of itself. Never has a league made it so difficult for teams to get good. They have a stupid salary cap system that cripples the league (guaranteed contracts and salary caps don’t play well together). They have a stupid draft lottery system that doesn’t remotely prevent tanking better than the simple envelope system did. They have a diluted talent pool which they want to dilute further by putting teams in Europe. They still have the most horrific officiating of any professional sports league. But every once in a while things manage to come together in spite of themselves. The 2007/2008 Western Conference is one of those things.

Of course, that’s not to say that I’m not looking forward to April 19th… I am. It’s just that I actually have something to watch between now and then. And seeing the Pistons crush the Suns by 30 made it all the more intriguing.