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Are the NBA Playoffs Broken?

The NBA has become a 24-hour-a-day, 12-month-a-year sport, but is the off-court drama and gossip threatening to eclipse the on-court product? And is the drawn-out and largely drama-free postseason to blame?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nick Nurse was defiant. Even incredulous. It was hard to blame him. He’s not the only one who was frustrated by the way the Raptors started the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks. Those of us who were hopeful that the two top seeds in the East would clash in an epic series were initially disappointed when Toronto dropped the first two games.

When Nurse was informed over the weekend about what a long shot the Raptors were to advance as a result of their poor performance in Milwaukee, he told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, “I don’t really give a crap about that. I just want our team to come play their ass off and get one game and it changes the series.” He got his wish. It took another superhero effort from Kawhi Leonard—who played nearly an hour of basketball on a hobbled leg—but the Raptors beat the Bucks in double overtime in Game 3. But even after Toronto won that game, the odds remain heavily stacked against them. Historically, teams that take the first two games in a series have gone 287-20. Put another way, that gives Toronto a 6.5 percent chance to beat Milwaukee. If we look just at previous conference finals situations, the odds are only slightly better, with the team that fell behind 2-0 coming back to win a little less than 10 percent of the time.

As an example to convince people—and possibly himself—that the Raptors can still upend the Bucks, Nurse reminded everyone about that time the Thunder got blown out in the first two games of a series against the Spurs, then went on to win four straight. He neglected to mention that was seven years ago. That outcome was clearly the exception, not the rule. The Raptors head coach probably didn’t realize it, but in that moment of Han Solo–like aggravation he was a damn fine proxy for those of us who are bummed by how broken the playoffs have become.

That feels like a weird thing to write coming off Sunday’s double-OT thriller in Toronto, not to mention two dramatic Game 7s in the second round. I was in Toronto for one of them. It wasn’t one of the best series I’ve ever seen, or even the best Game 7, but Kawhi’s incredible and improbable final shot was easily the best game-winner I’ve ever witnessed. The ball bounced on the rim four times—long enough for me to wrongly predict out loud to the reporter seated next to me that the game was going to overtime. Hours earlier, we had huddled around a TV in the press room at Scotiabank Arena and watched the Blazers claw back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Nuggets in Denver and advance to their first Western Conference finals in nearly two decades. As drama and entertainment go, that day was about as good as any of us could have asked for. But it also served as a reminder of how bland and pro forma the rest of the playoffs have been by comparison.

The Clippers took two games from the Warriors in the first round, which was fine if you’re into moral victories. The Spurs forced the Nuggets to go the distance in the first round—then brain locked in Game 7. When Kevin Durant went down with an injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, it seemed like the Rockets might have the opening they needed to finally dispatch the Warriors. Instead, the Warriors took it personally and started Houston’s vacation for them. Those represented some of the more interesting series so far. As of Monday, two teams have already been swept, with the Warriors threatening to make the Blazers the third. Five other series concluded with the vanquished team winning just one game. And aside from Portland beating Denver in the second round, every series has gone exactly as expected with the higher seed advancing. That’s a natural point of frustration for teams like the Rockets, who were sent off to yet another vacation that came too early for their liking. The attendant pain there is as understandable as it is seemingly unavoidable—not just for franchises that can’t seem to break into the league’s true hierarchy, but for hoops heads everywhere who would like a little more mystery to the playoff proceedings.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Last postseason, there were three sweeps (including the anticlimactic Finals). Six series featured just one win by the losing team. Taking out LeBron’s fourth-seeded Cavs from that season, there were only two upsets: the No. 5 Jazz over the No. 4 Thunder, and the No. 6 Pelicans over the No. 3 Blazers, both of which were in the first round. In the 2017 postseason, there were five sweeps. Three other series concluded with the losing team winning only one game. There were only two upsets in those playoffs as well, though they barely qualified as such. The Jazz, who were the fifth seed again that year, beat the fourth-seeded Clippers, but Los Angeles was without Blake Griffin for most of the series. The other “upset” was in the Eastern Conference finals when the No. 2 Cavaliers beat the No. 1 Celtics. The Cavaliers obviously had LeBron, which makes it hard to consider them an underdog. Not to mention that Cleveland rested James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving at the end of that regular season and essentially gifted the top seed to the Celtics.

More often than not, we have known the outcome before the series even started. The Golden State Warriors famously blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals and lost to LeBron and the Cavaliers in seven games, but a lot of strange stuff had to happen for that unlikely outcome to occur—including Draymond Green getting suspended for Game 5 after going high and inside on James’s manhood. Otherwise, there has been a suffocating air of inevitability in the postseason in general and in the Finals specifically. That has a lot to do with the difficult math of a seven-game series, where the higher seed goes on to win more than 80 percent of the time, according to a Harvard study. There is no quick fix, however: The odds for the underdog in five-game series across all sports are only about five percent better. That’s not the NBA’s fault, but it is the NBA’s problem.

The NBA likes to trumpet how it has never been more popular and profitable, but while that’s true, it also seems like the actual basketball and determination of which team will be champion has never been more of a foregone conclusion. The NBA has always been a dynastic enterprise—the Celtics and Lakers in the ‘80s, the Bulls in the ‘90s, the Spurs in the early ‘00s—and I’m not sure it would be any more entertaining if the Pacers or Jazz unexpectedly broke through and challenged for conference supremacy. But now that the NBA has evolved into a nearly year-long product, we’re constantly inhaling league culture—from on-court breakdowns, to deep dives on analytics, to endless off-court drama. As Steve Kerr astutely noted, they’re all “actors in a soap opera” these days. The issue is that it’s gotten to the point where everything that swirls around the league has almost become more interesting than how we determine the champion, which comes off as a bit of a drag by comparison.

The NBA carves out two full months for the postseason. A year ago, it took 55 days to wrap things up, and that included a mercy sweep by the Warriors in the finals. That’s nearly two full months, or roughly twice as long as the MLB playoffs. That also works out to around one-third of the entire NFL schedule—regular and postseasons combined. And all that to reach an unsatisfying ending that everyone expected. It’s a slog.

Through the first two weeks of this postseason, the ratings suffered accordingly and dipped 18 percent from a year ago. Networks were also bracing for an anticipated drop in ratings during the conference finals. Part of that can likely be attributed to LeBron and the Lakers sitting this postseason out, but the lack of overall intrigue certainly couldn’t have helped. The fatigue factor feels real. While Kawhi’s quadruple doink and Sunday night’s double-OT encore were great fun (for everyone but the Sixers, Bucks, and their fans), it was also only a brief respite for viewers who are tired of choking down results that feel increasingly baked in. Maybe that will change if/when KD flees for New York City. It’s possible we will get a hard factory reset on the overall NBA product this offseason when Durant, Irving, Kawhi, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, and a handful of other top-tier players decide whether to relocate in free agency. I hope that happens. The league could use a new look, even if it’s ultimately only superficial. But for right now, it appears we’re mired in another protracted postseason that will conclude as expected.

“Our guys are fucking giants,” Steve Kerr boasted after the Warriors beat the Rockets. He’s right. Even without KD, they have no equal. You can’t fault them for big-footing the opposition or stomping all over the playoffs. It’s what they’re built to do—smash the already-broken postseason.