The NBA Playoffs Are Going to Be So Much Fun


New York Knicks v Boston Celtics

Photo: Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

All-Star Games serve many purposes: rest for weary players, a central location for everyone involved with a league to gather in one place over a long weekend, the opportunity to try to find a nightclub, any nightclub, in Indianapolis or Salt Lake City. But the primary directive of these games is to cast pro-sports leagues and their biggest stars in the absolute best light.

Which is why it was absolutely hilarious when NBA commissioner Adam Silver handed over a trophy to the winning team at the conclusion of this year’s NBA All-Star Game this February — while openly mocking his league’s signature event. “To the Eastern Conference All-Stars,” Silver said, disgust and disdain dripping from every pore, “congratulations? You scored the most points?”

His repulsion was understandable, because the game had been an absolutely miserable watch. The Eastern Conference scored a stunning 211 points in the dullest, most monotonous way possible, with both teams putting forth the defensive effort of a colander made of smoke. (Seriously, watch this Luke Dončić shot.) Silver later told CNN that “we’re past that point where we’re going to play a truly competitive game,” but more interesting than that comment were his actions just a few weeks later. The ASG debacle accelerated complaints that regular-season games were too high-scoring, so the NBA sent out an advisement to its reporters to stop calling so many fouls (something they denied doing, before spinning it simply as a request to call the existing rulebook more closely) in order to both reduce scoring and speed up games. The results were immediate and unmissable, and last week Silver finally admitted that “an adjustment” had been made.

Two things about this are particularly notable. First is the notion that a league would dramatically change the structure and pace of its games in the middle of its season, which is essentially unprecedented. The only situation even slightly analogous is when Major League Baseball reduced doubleheader games to seven innings during the truncated 2020 COVID-19 season, something it did as a (successful) last resort to try to keep its season from falling apart. The second is that it worked: Games got quicker, scoring ticked down, and the pace of play instantly became more watchable and exciting. Silver pushed a button to make the game better, and no one minded. There was no garment-rending about the timing of his move, its effect on the game’s integrity, or any of that. All that mattered was improving the product.

As the NBA enters its very extended playoff season (Game Seven of the NBA Finals is currently scheduled for June 23, nine weeks away), it is remarkable how healthy the sport is at the moment. There are long-term concerns, sure, most notably how the league will eventually replace LeBron James and Stephen Curry (still its two biggest stars, who are 39 and 36, respectively). But in the short team, everything is falling the NBA’s way. Consider what’s going right as we hit the playoffs:

• Extreme buy-in from the largest markets, including Los Angeles and, especially, New York, which has fallen in love with the best team it’s had in decades.

• Electric, emerging stars at the crux of their powers, from Dončić to New York’s Jalen Brunson to Boston’s Jayson Tatum to Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, alongside longtime established stars like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA gets to flaunt every single one of their major stars this postseason, except Victor Wembanyama, the freakish San Antonio rookie (and this is probably the last time he’ll be missing the playoffs for the next decade-plus).

• James and Curry, whose teams are featured in the tournament’s play-in games (another innovation that improved the sport instantaneously) assuring massive television ratings right out of the gate.

• A defending champion in Nikola Jokić’s Denver Nuggets, who serves as a formidable counterpoint to the more outgoing and telegenic stars, even as he and his team are quite likable.

• Television partners in ESPN and Turner who, out of their own desperation, will provide relentless around-the-clock coverage and hype of every storyline, real or otherwise, for two consecutive months.

And for all the talk of NBA ratings’ wobbliness, they’re up from last year and are widely expected to be considerably higher than last year’s postseason. Silver has weathered a number of controversies this season; remember,it began with Ja Morant, one of the league’s most marketed players, suspended for 25 games over multiple offenses, and he ended up just playing nine games before going down with an injury. But that didn’t stop the NBA’s momentum, and neither has a potentially far bigger problem. While Major League Baseball has been dealing with a high-profile pseudo-gambling scandal involving Shohei Ohtani (who now appears to be a totally innocent man), the NBA faces a similar nightmare scenario, but one that’s looking a lot more troubling. It appears that Toronto forward Jontay Porter, a bit player who is the brother of better-known Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., might have been placing prop bets on himself. He has not been accused of anything yet, but an inordinate number of gamblers wagered that Porter would fail to reach certain statistical milestones in certain games, like notching two assists or scoring six points. Then, after entering the game, Porter would pull himself with some sort of phantom injury, guaranteeing the bet would pay off. Some of us have been screaming for a while about how sports leagues are placing themselves in highly vulnerable positions by going all in on sports gambling. Now, the Porter affair could be an existential scandal that rivals the infamous Tim Donaghy episode from nearly two decades ago. A player purposely failing! What could be worse than that?

But the average fan knows next to nothing about this scandal; Silver immediately assessed it as the sport’s “cardinal sin” and said he had the authority to ban Porter from the sport for life. Then he went right on to talking about the Minnesota Timberwolves. I’d argue that his so-far-successful attempt to brush this under the rug has worked because the sport itself is so fun right now. Nobody wants to dwell on a gambling scandal (or how the league’s relationship with sportsbooks continues to compromise it and lead to more opportunities for that “cardinal sin”). They want to talk about Luka, and Steph, and LeBron, and the Knicks. Silver recognizes that his league is about product, and product only, and he will adjust it accordingly. Years ago, the league was known for ugliness, fouls, and fights; then Curry arrived, opened up the scoring, and made every kid want to shoot 35-footers in their backyards. That led to too many points, so Silver made another adjustment. He and the league don’t sweat the old, baseball-esque conversations about “purists” and “tradition.” They just do whatever they need to do to make sure the best players in the world can shine. Silver, unlike his predecessor, David Stern, is not dogmatic, or stubborn, or intransigent. His pragmatism has worked magnificently and will continue to do so every night for the next two months. The result is the most compelling NBA playoff situation since the days of Shaq and Kobe, or maybe even Jordan.

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