While the players may get bigger, faster, stronger and richer, professional sports leagues are in general pretty slow to accept changes to the actual rules that govern their sports. Interleague play – now a summer tradition in baseball – is still looked down upon by the purists. Hockey needed a lockout in order to institute new changes, and the NFL is still tweaking its system every spring at the owners meetings. The NBA tried to switch things up a couple of years ago with the composite ball but the players balked, and with the exception of longer shorts and less scoring, the game operates in much the same manner that it has for decades. As fans, we’re often slow to warm up to changes, unless of course our team gets screwed.
Well guess what? My team just got screwed.
For years I’ve suffered through the disaster that was the Golden State Warriors. They were always fun to watch, and I always had hope that one day everything would click, but season after season went by without playoff basketball in the Bay Area. Then “We Believe” happened. After years of pain, the Warriors gave their fans the greatest rush that any basketball fan base has felt in years. This wasn’t like Lakers fans rioting after winning another championship, or the Spurs players calmly raising their fists to the sky every other year. This was far more special. When you’ve suffered for so long, the joy of simply winning a playoff series can feel like so much more. It was like finally closing the deal with that hot TA of yours after weeks of trying. Sure it would’ve been sweet to race off to a bed or locked office after getting the syllabus, but there’s something to be said for enjoying the chase. Warriors fans took part in the chase for years, and when it all peaked with Baron Davis’ emphatic dunk over Andrei Kirilenko last spring, we knew that we would always have something to hold on to.
But once you’ve gotten a taste of the good life, you’re only going to want more. We wanted more and with Baron staying healthy, Biedrins and Jax taking their games to new levels, and Monta morphing into the next DWade right before our eyes, it felt like we would get to believe all over again. Once we got to the playoffs, we would run the Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks or Hornets right out of the first round. Then we’d get our revenge on the Jazz, with Baron embarrassing AK47 all over again. When we inevitably ran into the Suns or Lakers, we’d give the NBA a series to remember for years to come. It wouldn’t matter who won, Lakers-Warriors would divide the state and Isla Vista right down the middle. Gio’s would turn into ground zero, with Lakers fans on one side, Warriors fans on the other, and dozens of drunk sorority girls pretending they knew what the triangle offense was, all the while hoping that a disappointed fan of the losing team would need a “cheerleader” to get his spirits – and other things – back up to full force.
The dream would become a reality, once they got to the playoffs. Once they got to the playoffs…
The Warriors didn’t get to the playoffs. A loss to Phoenix on Monday knocked them out for good, assuring a playoff spot for the Denver Nuggets. But here’s the thing: Monday’s game never should have mattered. The Warriors should be in, and so should the Nuggets. This is where my first paragraph comes back into play. Leagues are slow to institute change, but it’s time for ironhanded NBA Commissioner David Stern to take a serious look at the league’s playoff system. Sure the NBA standings go in cycles, but there’s absolutely no reason why a 48 or 49-win Western Conference team should be sent to the golf courses while the likes of Philadelphia (40-41) and Atlanta (37-43) litter the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Put the Warriors in the East and they’re a top-four team, maybe even better considering they went 20-10 against the Leastern Conference this season. But out West they’ve been fighting for their playoff lives since the season’s opening tip. The conferences were set up years ago when travel was a serious concern, but if Stern wants to eventually stick teams in Europe – as he’s promised – what’s to keep him from telling the Orlando Magic to hop on a chartered jet and head to Texas or California for a playoff series. The West is loaded, and with teams like Portland and Seattle stockpiling young talent for future runs, the problem is going to get much worse before it ever gets better.
With a 16-team league-wide bracket, the Warriors would be sitting pretty as the 12th seed, with a first round matchup against the Spurs looming. Instead they’re headed back to the bottom of the draft lottery, a spot that’s essentially NBA purgatory. It’s time for a change to the way the NBA playoffs operate. We’ll always believe in the Warriors, but after a season that ended like this, it’s becoming awfully hard to still believe in the NBA.