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A Final Shift

by Robb Reel

Oh, what it must be like to be a distant third among professional sports leagues.

The NBA is just that in the US.  The NFL has a strong hold on the top spot, to no one's surprise.  MLB, despite all the exaggerated reports of its demise, is solid at second, closer in revenue to the NFL than the NBA is to baseball.  If we count NASCAR, it would slip in between basketball and baseball, knocking the NBA to fourth.

That doesn't even count college sports.

So what's a foundering league to do to grab attention?  The opening of training camp certainly isn't enough when hockey is doing the same and the fire for the three aforementioned sports is white-hot.  Football is four weeks in, most of the games have been fantastic and this season has already had more intrigue than most [see: Trent Richardson and Josh Freeman].  Meanwhile, NASCAR is in its playoff push while baseball's postseason just got started.

So, in a desperate attention grab, the Association has announced it will change the format of the NBA Finals.  After using the 2-3-2 since 1985, the series will now go 2-2-1-1-1 to match all the other 7-game series.  In that 29-year stretch, only four teams -- including the 2013 Miami Heat -- managed to win both Game 6 and Game 7 at home to take the title.

The 2-3-2 setup was already late in 1985.  The argument had been that all the cross-country travel in the Finals was just too tedious, specifically citing all the times the Lakers and Celtics met for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.  Yet this travel issue wasn't a concern in either 1978 or 1979 when the [since relocated] Seattle SuperSonics and the [since rechristened] Washington Bullets met in back-to-back Finals?

*For those of you playing our Home Game, that would be Washington, DC, not Washington the state.

Air travel in 1985 was substantially easier than in 1965; however, every NBA Finals from 1962 to 1970 involved either Boston, New York or Philadelphia from the East against either Los Angeles or San Francisco in the West.  That's a lot of back-and-forth between the Eastern and Pacific time zones.

Let's tilt the prism this way: during the 2-3-2 era, Miami met Dallas for the title twice [2006, 2011] with each winning once.  Those cities are roughly 1,300 miles apart.  Both times, the Heat had to beat the Bulls along the way -- in the 2-2-1-1-1 format -- even though Chicago is quite nearly the exact same distance from Miami as Dallas is.  In those 2006 playoffs, San Antonio met Sacramento in the first round -- again in 2-2-1-1-1 -- and those cities are 1,700 miles apart.  That's an hour longer in the air per flight than Dallas-to-Miami.

Here's my favorite: the 1995 NBA Finals featured Houston beating Orlando [back when a young, fast Shaquille O'Neal was there].  The Rockets and Magic are about 900 miles apart.  Even if you drive around the Gulf of Mexico instead of flying over it, the trip is less than 1,000 miles.  To get there, Orlando beat Boston [approx. 1,250 miles], Chicago [approx. 1,150] and Indiana [approx. 950].  Houston did have a short jaunt to San Antonio [200 miles] for the conference finals, but also a 1,450-mile trip, one way, to Salt Lake City -- twice -- in a 5-game series against the Utah Jazz.  In those same playoffs, Seattle faced the Lakers [approx. 1,150] and Phoenix battled Portland [approx. 1,300].

Suddenly, that whole travel argument looks pretty stupid.

I will give the NBA credit for one thing: finally getting the Finals format right.  The reason for changing back is sound, too: with every team using a private charter, and improvements in overall air travel, it's a lot easier to go back and forth.  As it has been for decades, though, the Association is way behind.

So why announce the change now?  Frankly, it's because David Stern -- a man who, by all biographical information, never actually played an organized sport -- can't resist one more trip to Camp Lookatmee.  He will mercifully step down next February after 30 years as commissioner.

Now there's a shift we can all get behind.

[The NBA logo and the Larry O'Brien Trophy are registered trademarks of the National Basketball Association]