It’s bad enough that there have been 16 NBA playoff spots since 1984. At that time there were only 23 teams in the league. It’s 2022, and still more than half of the league gets into the playoffs, and that’s not even counting the highly entertaining Play-in Tournament. Sure the New Orleans Pelicans were a late bloomer that ended up playing well against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns last spring, but no team 10 games under .500 deserve to be in a postseason.
The NBA has now decided to pass out trophies like a university student health center does prophylactics. Last season, an MVP trophy was added for both the Eastern and Western Conference finals, as well as another award many fans might have missed: Division Championship trophies.
That’s right, finishing in first place in one of the NBA’s eight divisions will not only result in some hardware, but it will be named after significant figures in league history. Three of them are named after the players who integrated the league — Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton — because of course there is no better honor for being the first to overcome racist policy than your name on the Southeast Division Championship trophy.
This season the NBA is again adding new awards. There will be a sportsmanship award given out that is named after Joe Dumars, because who better to name that award after than the one universally-liked player on one of the most hated teams in the history of American sports. The other new trophy will be presented to the NBA team that finishes the regular season with the best overall record.
That’s right, the team that has the best record after mid-April will be awarded a giant crystal ball with 82 panels to represent the regular season. The trophy is named after Maurice Podoloff, the league’s first commissioner.
Unless that ball has $1 million bonus checks inside for each player on the roster and members of the coaching staff, don’t expect that to enhance regular-season competition. Come April, the Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks won’t be playing their starters playoff minutes to win this brand-new item for the trophy case.
This is actually an award that would better serve MLB. Back in the days when the league was hesitant about national television, there were no playoffs. They played 162 games for a reason. In a sport where even the best players fail 70 percent of the time, reaching base on less than 43 percent of at-bats won Aaron Judge an MVP. A three, five, or seven-game head-to-head matchup doesn’t give an accurate representation of which team is best.
At the end of a long MLB season, it made sense to have a National League and American League champion. Those titles meant something. There was no interleague play, and teams battled against familiar foes nearly every single day for six months. Of course, winning a best-of-seven World Series makes a team immortal, but that league pennant was a real title. It was a test of endurance through consistent failure that was worth a major celebration. It meant that a team played baseball games with greater regularity than a 9-5 job, and withstood all of the ups and downs in a game that can end 1-0 or 13-12, to have the best record amongst all of the teams that they played that year.
Starting in 2023, every MLB team will play against each other in the regular season. There have been playoffs for decades, and with 12 teams in the postseason these days, and the 87-75 Philadelphia Phillies making the World Series, the marathon of a regular-season schedule has much less meaning. The team with the best record is still the actual best team, but in playoff series that can be played in under a week, someone bats .410, Madison Bumgarner’s arm turns into a firehose, and a 100-win team can blink and their season is over.
Basketball is not like that. Stephen Curry has far more than four opportunities to create offense in a single game. A best-of-seven series in that sport is actually the ideal way to decide the best teams. Shooting a basketball 23 feet into a hoop is going to happen far more often than hitting a 95-mile-per-hour ball the size of a rock, that’s not coming in a straight line, with a stick.
Baseball is all about the journey, and basketball is more so about the matchup. If there is any league that should award the best regular season team, it’s MLB.