Those of us who courageously and valiantly defend the NBA as being superior to college basketball generally face an uphill struggle. It’s true that the NCAA is a blatantly corrupt organization, and that the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant (who both went from high school to the pros) are nowhere to be found in the college game. But professional basketball is burdened with giant egos, often anemic effort, and too much ball-hogging. Only the sheer quality of the top players can cover up these problems.
This year, however, the seams are beginning to show. A particularly exciting March Madness gave way to the NBA Playoffs, which began in April and won’t end for more than a month. And, it pains me to say, the playoffs have been simply dreadful, with a mix of injury-depleted teams and thuggish play. The NBA’s great advantage over college basketball has always been raw talent, but now that talent is being poorly managed and grouped onto too few teams. When an overlong season is combined with bad coaches who overplay their stars, you get a situation where nearly half of the top ten players in the league are absent from the playoffs due to injuries. It’s enough to make you yearn for the inferior athleticism and dispersed talent of college ball.
With so many bad games and so many unlikeable characters, there is only one pleasurable emotion that NBA fans can feel this spring: schadenfreude. At least it’s better than nothing. The first bit of naughty joy to be taken is regional. After listening to months and months of the New York media boast that the city had two seriously good teams, the Nets lost a 7-game series to the barely functioning Bulls. (It’s always nice to see teams that horrendously overpay for talent lose, and the Nets’ ridiculously compensated Joe Johnson had a horrific series). Even better, the Knicks, who had trouble conquering an aged and bruised Celtics team—and who went about their victory with, er, a lack of class—are flailing against the Pacers. The Knicks also massively overpaid for a player—Amare Stoudemire—and their losing has been accompanied/aided by the horrendous play of their obnoxious guard, J.R. Smith.
In the Western Conference, it was joyous to see the Lakers lose, partially because the team’s center, Dwight Howard, plays basketball with the same intensity that people floss their teeth, and partially because the team is horrendously coached by Mike D’Antoni, who stubbornly sticks to his offensive scheme regardless of which team he is coaching. (Sidenote: Has the league ever had more mediocre coaches? The Clippers’ Vinny Del Negro appears to have no clue what he is doing; Scott Brooks of Oklahoma City has been, depending on your point of view, either tragically of amusingly inept; and even the Warriors’ much lauded leader, Mark Jackson, has presided over an astonishing number of dreadful fourth quarters in which his tired team—Jackson overplays his players—appears to have no idea what to do).
But the most pleasurable playoff subplot has been the beat down Miami is laying on the Chicago Bulls. Yes, you are supposed to have sympathy for injury-ridden, well-coached teams that play hard every night, and yes Miami is stocked with superstars. But the Bulls have played an incredibly dirty series in which the team commits hard fouls regularly. The NBA analyst Steve Kerr said it best when he explained that the Bulls seemed to be daring the league into calling a foul every time down the court, which of course it is disinclined to do. Meanwhile, the Bulls players could hardly be more unlikeable. (This Onion article is priceless). Meanwhile, Miami has three likeable superstars (sorry, it’s true), and two incredibly classy veterans (Ray Allen and Shane Battier). And LeBron James’s athleticism make up for a lot, largely because basketball allows one player to dominate in a way football and baseball do not.
If this summary makes me sound cruel, there is a reason that the NBA Playoffs haven’t offered less sadistic pleasures. One central problem, which the league has faced for nearly fifteen years, but which has gotten especially dreadful in the last half-decade, is the disparity between the conferences. The league’s best team (Miami) resides in the East, but the rest of the conference is pitiful. The two other potentially good teams—Chicago and Boston—saw their best players get injured. There have been several solutions canvassed for the conference problem. Jeff Van Gundy, the ABC broadcaster and former coach suggested that more teams from the West should make the playoffs in place of sub-.500 teams in the East. It isn’t a bad solution; it is, however, one that a conservative change-averse league is unlikely to adopt.
But injuries are what have truly damaged the league. The Thunder, generally considered the Heat’s only rival this year, saw their second best player go down in the second game of the playoffs. The Lakers lost Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (who has now, sadly, entered his decrepit phase). The Warriors and Nuggets, two fun western teams, also saw major injuries on the eve of the playoffs. If there is one culprit here it’s the length of the NBA season, which drains excitement from the season itself and leads to a greater risk of injury. But coaches are also to blame. Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls guard who has missed an entire season, suffered a nasty injury after he was left in a game that was basically over. Bryant was injured after being gratuitously overplayed. And it will continue: Miami’s coach, Erik Spoelstra, often leaves his crucial players in games well after the result is no longer in doubt.
So what’s left? Miami will cruise to the finals after beating Indiana, and Memphis and San Antonio will compete for the pleasure of losing to the Heat. Whether dynasties are a good or bad thing for sports is a question up for debate, but it is dispiriting that the Heat’s amazing season (which included a 27-game winning streak) has been the only interesting NBA story all year. The other possibilities that loomed right after Miami won last year—a Derrick Rose comeback to rescue the Bulls, a Lakers resurgence, an Oklahoma City-Miami rematch—all eventually fizzled thanks to injuries and Oklahoma City’s terrible decision not to keep James Harden. In short, the season and playoffs have become a microcosm for everything people despise about the NBA, with so much talent concentrated on one team, and so many dispiriting games. College basketball always has several endlessly interesting plotlines, and injuries to five or six players could never mar an entire season because talent is so dispersed. Sometimes that’s a problem, but after watching the 2013 NBA Playoffs, the college game looks rather appealing.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow Isaac on Twitter: @IChotiner.