College basketball’s annual tournament of chaos is one of America’s most engaging events. The art of selecting a winning bracket each March is a conversation starter no matter who you’re with, whether it’s an avid hoops fan or your friend that picked matchups based on the mascots. For at least the first weekend, all eyes are on the NCAA.
But the NCAA’s adrenaline-infused tournament has a superior older sibling: the NBA Playoffs. Starting just weeks after the Madness comes to its conclusion, the professional postseason tournament puts college’s comparatively rinky-dink venture to shame. What’s the secret to the NBA’s superiority? Read on to find out.
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1. Better Players
March has the power to turn individuals into household names. The NBA has so many household names that a lot of the college stars can’t cut it.
NBA rosters are filled with players who were the centerpiece of their college teams, but many of them do little more than ride the bench. A common sentiment toward the end of this season is that multiple college teams would have beaten the Sixers head-to-head. But consider someone like Elliot Williams–former college stud who averaged 18 points per game in his final season at Memphis–getting less than 18 minutes per game for a team like Philly. Even the league’s worst have college stars to spare.
When playoff time rolls around, that effect is amplified. Teams with multiple superstars like the Heat and Clippers are aided by supporting casts with decorated backgrounds of their own. If you want to see the best players play, the playoffs are a one-stop shop.
2. The Seven-Game Series
What, you prefer the randomness of the one-and-done format?
To be fair, the single-elimination tournament used by the Madness concentrates the pressure into individual games, the ultimate fix for adrenaline junkies. But the slow build up of the series format allows for tension to build from game to game, storylines bouncing back and forth as the teams search for those elusive four wins.
Rather than pack the action into a series of random games, we get to ride the basketball roller coaster, payoff coming in the form of moments like Ray Allen’s Finals-saving three-pointer.
There’s nothing better than basketball with some bad blood. What’s better to help it build than forcing teams to play each other repeatedly until one is left standing?
In a series format, personal battles aren’t over after one game. When Paul George duels LeBron James to a near standstill and comes out on the losing end, he has extra juice going into the next game. Blake Griffin’s post battles with seemingly every player he faces result in an extended battle of wills, seeing who will be the man to submit. And these are just the individual battles.
Unlike the seeding of the NCAA tournament, which often places big rivals on opposite ends of the bracket (and thus unlikely to meet), the conference setup means we get at least three rounds of games between opponents who are quite familiar with each other. Think Spurs-Thunder and Pacers-Heat, clashes between opponents of equal caliber who know a little too much about their opponent.
4. Home Court
Neutral site games make for a relatively “fair” setup in the NCAA tournament, even if the high seeds get the benefit of playing closer to home. But atmosphere is part of what makes sports great, and NBA playoff crowds are a sight to behold.
The league’s diverse fanbases each bring a little something different to the table. In cities like Portland and Oklahoma City, where pro basketball is the crown jewel of the sporting world, the crowds are raucous, rafter-shaking units that can help the tide turn in an instant. Towns with winning histories, like Los Angeles and Boston, have fans that are adept at picking their spots, rising to the occasion when their team needs it the most.
Of course, shutting up those fans as an away player is just as exhilarating. Look no further than LeBron’s favorite celebration–lowering the roof–to see how much joy the players take in hushing the home crowd of their opponent.
5. No Arbitrary Selections/No “Conference Tournament Winner” Entries
Unlike the NBA Playoffs, which seeds teams in reverse record order in their conferences to determine who is in and out, the NCAA uses a largely arbitrary selection system to determine who gets to play for the crown.
Each and every year, the NCAA’s selection committee sits down and picks which teams are worthy of playing in the tournament. Without fail, there are always teams on the outside looking in that were robbed of a spot for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, others make the field with almost identical resumes, leaving fans to wonder what in the heck the criteria for entry is.
This is further complicated by the goofy decision to award automatic berths to conference tournament winners, rather than the regular season league champions. Can you imagine if the NBA held similar tournaments within their divisions, and a team like the Magic made the playoffs because of a couple wins against teams that were already locks to make the field? The conference seeding by record works just fine for the NBA.
6. Redemption Is Swift
The NCAA tournament is heralded for its surprises. In the NBA, players can shake off a bad night with a special performance.
The single-elimination format of the NCAA means that if a team has an off night–which come all throughout the season as it is–they’re out of contention. In the NBA Playoffs, teams have the chance to overcome adversity and rewrite the story of the series. Those moments of redemption are often the most memorable games in league history. LeBron’s performance down 3-2 to the Celtics, with the series and his career arc in jeopardy, is just one of these unforgettable performances.
7. Nightly Basketball
The NCAA’s opening weekend is one of the most exciting times in sports… and then you get to wait four days before the next meaningful game.
This isn’t probably the fault of the institution–they have to pretend these kids are “student-athletes” after all–but the NBA has no such problem airing their product night in and night out for the first few rounds. Only when the Finals roll around do we start seeing games space out more, and basketball junkies have already gorged for a solid month before that time comes. Anything that provides more basketball is a plus.
8. No Guilt About The Exploitation of the Participants
If you believe scholarships should be enough “payment” for the student-athletes at major Division-I programs, you probably haven’t paid very much attention to the news lately.
Within the last few months, horrendous academic standards have been exposed, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player remarked that he had to go without eating some nights, NCAA president Mark Emmert has embarked on a media tour, denying there is a problem along the way. Rather than supporting that product and endorsing a body that regularly chews up and spits out its workers, why not watch the guys who are paid and profit for their immense gifts? It feels like the right thing to do.
9. Iconic Performances–Not Just Buzzer-Beaters
Let’s face it: if you’re a fan of the NCAA tournament, odds are you remember a few of the buzzer-beaters that crushed dreams and elevated others in the same instant.
The NBA Playoffs are filled with shots that have entered the game’s lore. But unlike the tournament, many of these shots are supplemented by memories of events that came before crunch time. Michael Jordan’s game-winner to close out his Bulls career in 1998 is a special memory, but his highlight reel also includes a 63-point performance in a loss, and a first half barrage of threes that led to the world’s most infamous shrug:
Stars may be born in the NCAA tournament, but legends are made among the big boys in the NBA.
10. The Best Team Wins
It’s hard to convince fans of the NCAA tournament that less randomness is a good thing. But titles remaining in the hands of the best team is something that the NBA gets right.
Needing 16 wins against four different teams to capture the title means that anyone fortunate enough to hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy has gone through the requisite tests to get there. In the NCAA, the problem is comparable to the NFL, whose postseason play is exciting but often sees a surprise champion emerge out of nowhere, leading people to wonder why they had a regular season at all.
The amount of wins needed to capture an NBA championship weeds out the flukes from the field, and leaves us with a worthy No. 1. That’s more than you can say about many sports, let alone NCAA hoops.
BONUS: You Don’t Have to Listen to “One Shining Moment”
This song needed to be retired at least 15 years ago. There’s a reason people make fun of the ’80s.
Which postseason do you enjoy more?
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