January 19, 2018
The Clippers-Spurs series flagged up two potential "issues", and a load of fixes. None of which are necessary.

We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore we must do this.

The Politician’s Syllogism

Even one of the best playoff series in recent memory is becoming little more than the jumping off point for the latest round of “Fixing the NBA.”

That such an epic confrontation as the Los Angeles Clippers versus the San Antonio Spurs was “wasted” by being only in the first round is, supposedly, proof positive that we need seeding reform, conference realignment, playoff opponent ‘drafts’, or any number of other repairs to the system.

The only problem is, the system isn’t broken. And while I’m partial to the sheer bulletin-board material maximizing drama and acrimony of ‘select your opponent’ proposals, none of the ideas does much but move the same leaves around the same yard without picking them up. It’s the illusion of progress, not the actuality of it.

For starters, why does it matter whether the San Antonio – Los Angeles series was in the first round, second round, or even the Conference Finals?

Absent conference realignment, those two particular teams are mutually exclusive entrants for one spot in the NBA Finals. Is giving either squad a chance to be upset by a supposedly lesser team in the first round something to be striven for? While it is certainly unlucky for both teams (most especially the now-vacationing Spurs) that they had to play that series first, luck always has and always will play a tremendous part in the outcome of a given competition. In part because of their own dominance, but also because of the injuries befalling some of the other leading contenders (Kevin Love; Chris Paul; the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers rosters; Mike Conley; multiple key rotation players for the Houston Rockets), the Golden State Warriors could easily end up with one of the easiest paths to the title of all time. And yet I doubt Warriors fans will complain, nor should they. There isn’t a special asterisk reserved for teams which weren’t forced to pay multiple game sevens to win the trophy, and luck should neither be penalised nor legislated against.

Furthermore, even the “reseeding” proposals don’t do away with luck of the draw. What if Wes Matthews injures his Achilles a month later, for example? Portland is still a dead team walking, but might have been a legitimate fourth seed by record. Would it not be luck for Houston or San Antonio to have played the depleted Blazers (even without home court advantage)? Even matching the teams by straight record this season would have given a first round pairing of San Antonio and Memphis, which is hardly “fair” either.

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All this is before even discussing how much, in a conference as tightly bunched as this year’s West, fortune has already played into the final orderings. Even over 82 games, a buzzer-beater here, an unfortunate call or minor injury there, would have more than made the difference between second and fifth place by record. The system is set up in advance, everyone knows what they have to do, and it’s strange there is so much sympathy for teams which haven’t done so.

Nor does pointing to the conference imbalance move me. Oklahoma City had the 13th best record in the NBA this year, but while a healthy Thunder are obviously better than that, its hard to get too worked up about a barely better than average team not being allowed to participate in the postseason. Brooklyn and Boston may not have “belonged”, but again, the Thunder had 37 opportunities to win the one more game they needed. While injuries ruined their title hopes, they have only themselves to blame for not doing so and at least making the first round. It’s a competition, and you always control your own destiny. Win your games and it’s not a problem.

Of course, playoff seeding isn’t the only such topic up for postseason scrutiny. Lottery reform will surely be discussed at length this summer, especially if the Philadelphia 76ers looks like they will enter next season with another significantly sub-NBA caliber roster. The proposed solutions are all either completely unworkable (the draft wheel), silly (the draft wheel), trying to “fix” the problem by demolishing the purpose of reverse order draft (the draft wheel), or simply realign without eliminating the incentives for “tanking” (every other active proposal).

Not every “big idea” is related to such structural off-court issues. The other big topic for discussion to come out of Clippers-Spurs was the disposition of the “Hack-A” technique.

There are conflicting reports already as to whether something will be changed this summer. After all, the NBA’s chattering classes have declared expecting a professional basketball player to be able to make more than 45% or so their free throws is a scourge on the game, and so Something Must Be Done. But the ramifications of any such change have largely gone unconsidered.

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The more aesthetically ridiculous efforts of the “Hack-A” strategy (such as Matt Bonner running past the ball-handler and away from his own basket to foul DeAndre Jordan on several occasions during that series) should be easy to curb with draconian penalties. But it’s relatively simple for a defense bent on sending a poor free throw shooter to the line to “unintentionally intentionally foul.” Any time Jordan moves to set a screen on or off the ball, he could be expected to be grabbed, tripped, pulled, hit, body checked and generally abused. If referees call a common foul, it’s basically the status quo. If any punitive “intentional” foul is frequently whistled, the level of off-the-ball dramatics would make James Harden blush. If the whistles simply get swallowed, the level of physicality will only ramp up, leading to injuries, confrontations (maybe even the occasional fight), and the same rugby-like style which marred the early post-(Michael) Jordan era. Plus, one can only imagine the Talmudic parsing of intent for the inevitable and extended video reviews to determine whether a given collision was “a basketball play” or not.

Thankfully, NBA commissioner Adam Silver poured a little bit of cold water on the rush to fix things on both the playoff seeding and “Hack-A” fronts. This is welcome; despite the ostensible simplicity of fixing both “problems”, addressing either could give rise to a complex system of repercussions. One “minor” alteration can have far-reaching impacts, most of which would be seen as negative. For an example of the resulting kludge, considering the byzantine contours of the salary cap system, in which every attempt to curb perceived abuse has spawned several more loopholes for the more enterprising of teams to exploit. With how unusual and generally non-troublesome the supposed issues to be fixed are, the cure probably can and will be worse than the occasional bout of the sniffles these problems represent. The same applies with both playoff seeding and deliberate fouls – both are logical outcomes from parts of the game which are best rectified by the teams supposedly affected winning more games and making more shots.

Still, rule changes would be doing something. And that seems to always be the plan.

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Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow is a former small college player and current armchair analyst. In addition to BBallbreakdown.com, his work can be found on the Hardwood Paroxysm Basketball Network, The Cauldron and Washington Post's "Fancy Stats" blog. He is also the host of the Make or Miss Podcast and can be found on twitter @SethPartnow.

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