What March Madness Can Teach NBA

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Of all the pro sports, the NBA has the strangest relationship with its college game. It has neither football’s symbiosis nor baseball’s integration. Every fall and winter weekend football fans can gorge themselves with games, while baseball fans have all summer to track prospects. Unfortunately, basketball fans are torn between college and the pros. And once March comes, the NBA’s competitive deficiencies are exposed. 

Unlike the NBA playoffs, the NCAA Tournament is defined by drama: games decided in the final seconds, upsets, and Cinderella stories. Moreover, the uncertainty couples with betting has the powerful effect of attracting casual fans in droves. Doubters need only Google “March Madness” and “office productivity” to see the investment casual fans make in the Big Dance.  

By contrast, the NBA is boring. An 82-game regular season ends with a playoff chase between .500 teams for the seventh and eighth slots. The early playoff rounds are little more than exercises in futility where the top teams squash the bottom ones. The participants in the conference and NBA finals were likely identified in October as the title contenders. And, the best hope bad or mediocre teams have to reach the upper echelon is drafting players who develop into hall of famers. For many NBA squads, wait until next year really means next decade. 

This author previously attributed the NBA’s competitive sclerosis to bad economic policies. Namely, the salary cap and max contract provisions distort incentives that would otherwise prevent star talent from concentrating in select locales. But, the annual excitement surrounding March Madness, and the fluidity of college basketball, suggests the NBA’s problems go beyond economics.  

Invariably, some will object that comparing the NBA to college basketball is wrong. Critics can claim the NCAA Tournament is conducive to upsets because it is one-and-done, while the NBA playoffs are predicated on the best team winning a seven-game series. Still others will assert the NCAA has haves and have-nots just like the NBA. Both objections are misleading.  

There is not chaos every March. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a one-seed has claimed the championship 18 times (64%), reached every Final Four except in 2006 and 2011, never lost in round one, and no seed below eight has won it all (Villanova in 1985). Cinderella stories come from lower seeds avoiding the juggernauts early on, and are punctuated by the ousting of a favorite (see George Mason defeating Connecticut in 2006). 

Although, it is worth mentioning that non 1-seeds have won 10 titles (36%) beginning in 1985. Also, an all 1-seed Final Four has occurred just once (2008). So while the top programs are a strong presence, they are not the be-all and end-all.

Furthermore, the genius of college basketball is how modest success in March can bolster a decent program. St. John’s built a solid program by claiming tournament berths regularly over the years (although not recently) and winning the NIT. When good coaching and recruiting is added, greater achievement becomes possible. Today’s powerhouses such as Michigan State, UConn and Florida are late arrivals (1990s) compared to Kentucky (1950s). Each of the three built on tournament berths and victories prior to winning a title (although Michigan State won in 1979) and rising to elite status.

The lesson for the NBA is upward mobility matters. If the fun, and health, of college basketball is not proof enough then consider the NBA’s current caste system. Beneath eight teams owning every title since 1984 is an alarming roll call of talented squads that failed to break into the NBA’s upper echelon since the 1999-2000 season.

The Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves enjoyed success this century. But none of them won a title, three did not make an NBA Finals (Suns, Nuggets, and Timberwolves), and only the Nets reached the finals more than once (2002-2003). Those who would dismiss these squads as unworthy should consider another fact. Each team, possibly excepting the Nuggets, had a prospective hall of famer; Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Garnett.

The major standout was the superstar-less Detroit Pistons who reached seven consecutive Eastern Conference finals from 2002-2008, won it all in 2004, and lost in seven games to the San Antonio Spurs in 2005.  The Oklahoma City Thunder is possibly an outlier in the making after breaking the Lakers' and Spurs’ vice-grip on the Western Conference last year. But the more likely scenario is the Thunder supplanting the decaying Lakers instead of ushering in a more open NBA.

So what should the NBA do, besides changing its economic policies, to enable greater mobility? First, scrap divisions and balance the schedule. Inflated, or depressed, records invariably distort playoff seeding. Second, cut two playoff participants per conference. Why play 82 games and have .500 teams in the postseason? Third, reformat the early rounds. Make round one a best-of-three between the bottom four seeds while the top squads get byes, and make round two a best-of-five. Short series will add drama, similar to the rounds of 64 and 32 in March Madness. Coupled with truer seeding, the results could be exciting series: the Miami Heat and an upstart playing a pressure-packed five-game series. The bonus of this overhaul is a brisker postseason, rather than the present two months long slog.

The proposed reforms alone do not cure the NBA’s competitive dysfunction. But, they would give the regular season meaning and inject more drama into the NBA playoffs. Opening up the league competitively will take a combination of economic and structural reform. But, basketball fans seeking drama need not worry. The college game will be putting on a clinic in competition and excitement soon enough. Any doubters need only check their brackets in the middle of March.


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