The NBA playoffs begin this weekend, but after the very long, sometimes dull, regular season, the playoffs are a test of endurance.
David Halberstam wrote many great—and long—books, most notably Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, but my favorite of these is The Breaks of the Game. He spends the 1979-80 season with the Portland Trail Blazers. The glow of their legendary 1977 title team had just faded, and what was left was an aging team scrambling to make the bottom rungs of the NBA playoffs.
What made the book so engrossing wasn’t his portrayal of the players but rather the sense that the 82-game regular season is long and grueling. Sports in general, and the NBA in particular, have an air of glamour to them, but this book pulled the curtain back on that myth. While the reality was not enough to put an end to my envy of the pay checks of pro basketball players, Halberstam’s book made it seem like 6 1/2 months of living in hotels or hotel-like conditions wasn’t the healthiest prelude to the playoffs.
The 82-game NBA marathon that concluded on Wednesday night was not without its pleasures, but by early April it did seem Halberstamian in length. Part of the problem was that the haves and have-nots in the league were separated by Christmas with little left to be decided. It was clear by then that the league consisted of four elite teams—the defending champion Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic. All other playoff teams were a notch or two below. The quick surge of the top teams meant that for the last 4 1/2 months, the drama in the league centered on where the second-tier playoff teams would be seeded.
Even the individual awards were locked up early. LeBron James established an airtight case for league’s Most Valuable Player before the start of 2009. His statistical profile, 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per contest won every argument about who the MVP should be, and he did this playing fewer minutes per game this season than any since his rookie year.
James’ Cavaliers took a big step forward, winning 21 more games this season than last. Although the improved quality of James’ teammates and the offensive schemes of assistant coach John Kuester are the principal reasons for the gain, James is the public face of a team most likely to win it all in June.
Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard should enjoy a similar consensus as Defensive Player of the Year. He prowled the middle, blocked shot after shot and grabbed rebounds by the dozen for a Magic team that improved markedly. Howard’s coach, Stan Van Gundy, is the odds-on favorite to win Coach of the Year. There is less agreement on Rookie of the Year; it will likely go to Chicago Bulls point guard, Derrick Rose, a deserving candidate. He helped turn around a flagging franchise, and the Bulls have soared into the playoff picture. The only post-season award that appears to be up for grabs is Most Improved Player. That would have gone easily to New Jersey Nets point guard Devin Harris, but his team faded from the playoff race denying him the spotlight. He deserves it, and in the absence of other strong candidacies, he may win anyway.