When I first moved to Chicago, I knew instantly that I was going to become a Blackhawks and Bulls fan. They played my favorite sports, and I wanted to fit in with the community, so my adoption of my new teams complimented my longtime fandom of the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia 76ers perfectly. In hockey, everything came easy for me. For basketball… Well, when I took off for Chicago, I had been a Sixers fan only since 2002, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay one. The player I wanted to support wasn’t with them anymore, and he may have been out of the NBA completely by then. So, sick of explaining my loyalty to the Sixers, I started trying on new teams, seeing how they fit. Although I did eventually find my way back to the Sixers, in 2007 an unexpected run to the playoffs by a virtually unseen team called the Golden State Warriors caught my attention. They traded several of their lynchpins, won only a couple more games than they lost, squeezed into the eighth playoff spot on a technicality… And totally upended the Dallas Mavericks – the best team in the league – in the first round. While that upset wasn’t the shocker everyone acts like it was – the Warriors were actually undefeated against the Mavericks in the regular season – I still thought it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. The Warriors were immediately placed onto my watch list, and I’ve been cheering for them ever since. Something about the Golden State Warriors just felt right.
This last season in both leagues, there was an odd synchronicity between four of the five teams I like. The Sabres found a place in history by literally being a worse hockey team than any since the 1930’s, while the Sixers – who hold the distinction of fielding the worst team in NBA history for a season in the 1970’s – were just as awful, and probably would have been the worst team in the NBA this year had the New York Knicks not started making an effort to tank during the middle of the season. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks and Warriors were both favorites to win their leagues. The Warriors, in fact, were historically good; they played on the level of the 1983 Sixers, 1996 Bulls, or 1986 Boston Celtics. The Blackhawks had an unusual season. For a month, they couldn’t find the net; their star player was badly injured around the halfway point; and they limped into the playoffs on a losing streak. Both teams, though, pulled through and won their titles, and I followed my teams the whole way through, screaming like a lunatic. I also started asking myself, with the season similarities between the NHL and NBA, which league did its playoffs better. So let’s do this! The NHL Playoffs vs. the NBA Playoffs. One day, I’ll learn.
The NBA has the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. It has a 24-karat gold overlay, but is made of 14.5 pounds of sterling silver and vermeil. It’s two feet tall and designed to be a very basic cup with a quixotic little detail: There’s a sphere attached to the rim of the cup, so the Larry O’Brien Trophy looks like a basketball falling into a net. The team that wins it gets its name engraved onto the side along with the year, and the team gets to keep the trophy until it rots. The trophy has also undergone something of an identity crisis: The original NBA Championship Trophy was a more traditional cup design which was named after Walter A. Brown – the original owner of the Boston Celtics and a man who was instrumental in merging the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and National Basketball League (NBL) to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) – starting in 1964. The original design was junked in 1977, but Brown’s name was attached to it until 1984, when it was renamed. The NHL offers its Champions the Stanley Cup, which was originally bought by Lord Stanley of Preston in 1892 and named the Dominion Challenge Hockey Cup. Like the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it evolved slowly into the form everyone knows and loves today. Starting as a glorified punch bowl that was seven inches tall and 11 inches wide, that first punch bowl design is now what caps off an iconic trophy which is 35 inches tall and 34 pounds. There’s no copy of it made for the winners every year, either – the names of the players for the winning team are engraved on the side, and the team keeps it for a year, or however long it takes for them to lose it. The Stanley Cup even acknowledges the lockout of the 2004-2005 season, by simply stating “season not played.”
The NHL and the Stanley Cup! The Larry O’Brien Trophy is a nice thing to win, and the quirky design certainly stands out. Design, however, will only win so many points against a trophy with an entire mythology surrounding it that Zeus would be proud of. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is handed to a handful of players on the team, then given to the owner, at least during the public presentation. The Stanley Cup is handed to every member of the team to skate around with for a minute, then everyone pauses and surrounds it for a team picture. During the locker room celebration, players drink beer out of it! Every player then gets to spend a day with the Cup. As you can imagine, this has resulted in some anecdotes which add to the Cup’s mythos. The Stanley Cup has made its way into a swimming pool; one player from the Chicago Blackhawks was pushed around The Loop in a wheelbarrow with it; and people have found uses for the Cup including a baptismal font, flower pot, dog food dish, and paper incinerator. It has marched in the Gay Pride Parade. Even the misspelled engraving on the Cup are legends. The most telling aspect of the trophy contest, however, is the fact that the NBA is adopting publicity techniques used by the NHL and the Stanley Cup in order to gain more popular recognition for the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
Every sports league has a shortlist of galactic superstars, and every team has a face. The NBA has nationally known names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, and Carmelo Anthony headlining it. The NHL has familiar players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, and John Tavares in its ranks. The NHL, though, sees games as team efforts, and so, of a 60-minute game, your favorite players will average somewhere between 20-24 minutes on the ice in a single game, all sparsed out in shifts of a couple of minutes. This means unknown players will get chances to play hero, and some unknown but prominent players will have a chance to shine. How could anyone forget the manic, possessed performance of Anaheim Ducks (still known then as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim) goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere during the 2003 playoffs? Or Cam Ward outdueling Ryan Miller during the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals? Okay, they’re cheating a little, because they’re goalies, but there are plenty of other instances: The May Day goal, a series-winner scored by Sabres enforcer Brad May in 1993; Chicago’s Bryan Bickell emerging as a playoff monster in 2013, putting 17 points on the board during the playoffs, including the equalizer in game six with 76 seconds to go in regulation; and Daniel Briere – an All-Star during his time in Buffalo, but otherwise a write-off expense everywhere else – leading all playoff scoring with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. NBA games are shorter – they run for 48 minutes, divided into four 12-minute quarters. The average starter on an NBA team can easily be on the court for around a half hour, while the team’s superstars can be out for 40 minutes. While a lot of sportswriters like to huff on breathlessly about how stars in the NBA keep stepping up in the playoffs, you don’t see very many of them mentioning the fact that NBA coaches run their teams in a way that allows their stars to accumulate thousands of points per game. That makes the NBA more of an individualistic showcase for its best players, who are expected to stay on the hardwood doing everything in two directions. Game plans and gambling lines are drawn up with an NBA team’s stars in mind, and more often than not, the stars deliver, and most of them turn in laudable efforts even when their teams lose. When we attack NBA stars for choking, that comes with context – most of them actually do just fine, and we’re tearing them down for a singular aspect of their games that just happened to be off at a bad time.
The NBA. Basketball is a high-scoring sport in which players can put points on the board in bunches. While I do give hockey’s team mentality all the credit in the world, the short shifts, short overall playtime, and low scoring mean stars can disappear in the playoffs more easily than we care to acknowledge. You can see the difference in the way the playoffs are advertised: The NHL tends to emphasize the cities, while the NBA can get away with placing more emphasis on individual players. You don’t see “Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks take on Steve Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning;” it’s just the Blackhawks against the Lightning. You do see a lot of that in the NBA. Everyone knows LeBron James is the best player on the planet, and that HIS Finals opponent, Stephen Curry, was voted the league MVP. Their respective teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, were only mentioned by sportswriters when they wrote first about how the Warriors had better players and would inevitably crush the Cavaliers in four games, then later about how the Cavaliers were overcoming their lack of talent to turn it into a series. In the light of NBA history, this is even more prominent: Everyone knows about the rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, but who besides NBA fans can name their teams? Later, it became Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rescuing the league from oblivion and turning it into a juggernaut. To a casual fan, this is an important distinction. After all, a casual fan looking to see what the hype is about can easily miss great plays by star hockey players; if they’re looking to see what the NBA is about, a star can put on a hell of a show every night.
The flow of a game is important. It can make or break the memorability and entertainment value of a playoff game. Both basketball and hockey are known as very fast sports, but both the NHL and NBA have had major issues with teams exploiting dumb rules to create championship defenses: The NBA has the San Antonio Spurs, and the NHL has the New Jersey Devils. Both of them exploited loopholes and created slow, boring versions of their sports which required the leagues to take action. Other than them, both sports have rules that stop play for ridiculous reasons. The NBA seems more prone to them, because it has so many more, but the NHL’s play stoppages take more time to sort out. In the NBA, the ball is merely handed to a player on the other team for a quick inbounds pass, while NHL stoppages require an entire face-off. The NBA also has shorter between-period intermissions and a single real halftime, compared to two halftimes in hockey games. Both sports also have very different ways of settling close games in the final minutes – the NHL has the empty net, in which the goalie is removed in favor of an extra attacker, while the NBA starts using intentional fouls.
The NHL. Even hardcore NBA fans will admit basketball is a sport in which close games are only entertaining if one team starts to pull away during the final few minutes. Otherwise, everything becomes a pattern of free throws, intentional fouling, strategic inbounding, and timeouts; it’s not unusual for a close NBA playoff game to take 15 minutes to play the final minute. In the meantime, there’s hockey, taking the goalie out of the net, and then speeding up as the team that’s down and which removed their goalie fights frantically to score the goal that forces overtime. If you’re a fan of one of the teams in a hockey playoff game, I’ll grant that last minute can feel like an eternity. But the NHL wins here because in the NBA, that final minute can be a true eternity, not to mention a joyless bore to watch.
A casual fan can get caught up in a good storyline revolving around the playoffs, and so the narratives tend to get pushed by the leagues. Good storylines are why the baseball playoffs still have pull, even though the sport has now sucked beyond belief for three years and the measures being taken to speed it up are fairly half-assed (although, to MLB’s credit, they do seem to be working). Sometimes the stories are rich in history and tradition: In 2008 and 2010, the NBA saw the renewal of its oldest and fiercest rivalry: The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played against each other in the Finals, with Boston winning the former and Los Angeles taking the latter. In 2010, the NHL got a juicy Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, two of its oldest teams, neither of which had much to brag about lately; Chicago was fighting against a curse which was about to hit the wrong side of 50, and the generally excellent Flyers had been choking in the Final since their most recent Cup in 1975. Then again, they can go the other way as well: The 2003 Stanley Cup Final was between the Devils and Ducks; or, to put it in terms the fans looked at it in, the team everyone hated for ruining hockey against the team everyone hated because its name evoked a popular Disney movie. The NBA frequently ends up turning to its marquee stars to sell the matchup, but they can get away with it: Magic vs. Bird always meant compelling basketball. When that rivalry petered out, the league turned to asking if Michael Jordan could ever be a winner, and was lucky to be able to add the double whopper when Jordan’s first Finals opponent was Magic. When Jordan left, there was the New York Knicks finally getting past Chicago, but could they win the title everyone wanted and expected them to win? The Finals this year has the best story in eons: LeBron James returns to his original team to make up for his past sins, but can he lead the Cavaliers to their first-ever title in their 45 years of existence? Can the Warriors win the Finals for the first time since 1975? You would think the NHL had a bigger problem in selling stories, since nearly half its teams were created in the 90’s, but not really: 1994 gave us the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, one team 54 years without a Cup and the other Cup-less since its 1970 creation. 2001 asked if Ray Bourque could finally win that Cup everyone thought he so richly deserved. The expansions have worked surprisingly well for the NHL in terms of playoff storylines because since the Original Six finally began its resurgence in 1993, fans have been able to enjoy a respectable combination of the old powerhouses and their new usurpers, and the unpredictability of the playoffs meant new faces and new possible upsets, forever vaulting newer teams into the Final. In that respect, even the teams we all hate have given fans good stories, whether the teams we hate are old powers looking to return to their thrones (the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs) or new teams trying to carve a niche for themselves and saying they deserve the respect traditionalists all have saved for the old teams (the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and even the Phoenix Coyotes a couple of years back). The greater possibility of upsets in the NHL also lends a hand, because it ensures a unique Cinderella story every year – the 2003 Western Conference Finals might have been one-sided, but you can’t say the series between the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Minnesota Wild didn’t begin with an interesting premise.
The NHL. The random aspect of the NHL playoffs allow for the creation of more unexpected stories on the fly. Meanwhile, the old teams and new teams in the NHL ensure that a lot of fans will be watching – they’ll be snagged by the possibility of the new teams going down in flames. The biggest decider, though, is the fact that the NBA still runs on a hierarchy. While the NBA can get away with promoting individual stories over team stories, this hierarchy doesn’t leave it with much of a choice. There are some upsets in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but but generally, the teams in the Finals are going to be the best teams in the league. This season has been an exception, and if the San Antonio Spurs had beaten the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, it wouldn’t have been much of an exception. The NBA seems to like the hierarchy because it makes marketing easier, and it can concentrate on the popular teams instead of odd teams like the Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, or Oklahoma City Thunder. More on this later.
Every team has to have a decent chance of winning a title once or twice. If they don’t, a sports league becomes a secondary plot to one or two teams which dominate every season, and what fun is that? Why would anyone cheer for a team unless they believed the team had at least an outside shot at a title every now and then? The NHL is good at delivering new teams to the playoffs; it probably helps that it introduced a million different new teams to the league in the 90’s. Given the frequently-close nature of hockey games, unexpected teams have been able to make deep playoff runs. Although the NHL playoffs are known as a gauntlet, they’re usually pretty good at weeding out teams that aren’t good enough to win the Stanley Cup, although there have been a few notable exceptions: The 1938 Blackhawks somehow won the damn thing, despite having a putrid 14-25-9 record, scoring fewer goals than anyone, any allowing more than all but one team – before the Original Six era. The 2006 Edmonton Oilers were also a very pedestrian team, and the 1996 Florida Panthers – who were in just their third year of existence – made it to the Final with bits and pieces still fresh from being cobbled together from the expansion draft. In hockey, a lot is reliant on lucky bounces and good goaltending – the late 90’s-era Buffalo Sabres were notorious for making deep playoff runs because they had the greatest goalie in the world and no one else. (Okay, Miroslav Satan if we’re being nice.) In basketball, things are much different – the teams with the best athletes usually turn out to be the best teams, and so any and all teams that managed to squeak into the playoffs by a hair will be out before the Finals. Yes, we sometimes see great players carrying teams on deep runs, but teams without some sort of superstar power generally don’t stand a chance in hell. The Detroit Pistons’ 2004 Championship was a shocker at the time, but they were helmed by a superstar coach, Larry Brown. The 2007 Golden State Warriors hadn’t lost a game against the Dallas Mavericks all during the regular season, so their famous upset wasn’t as incredible as everyone thinks. (It was still pretty cool, though, so much that I started following the Warriors afterward.) The seeding and regular season records usually make things predictable in the NBA playoffs. There’s a lot of writing about NBA teams that had no business being in the Finals, but there have only been four Finals teams below a third seed: The 1978 Seattle Supersonics; the 1981 Houston Rockets (who had a losing record); the 1995 Houston Rockets (who managed to win the whole damn thing); the 1999 New York Knicks (in a lockout-shortened year during which every team fell out of shape); and the 2006 Dallas Mavericks.
The NHL. Much as I respect great athleticism, I want my team to have a reasonable shot in the playoffs, even if they do rely on their goalie getting hot at the right time. The random puck physics and streakiness of hockey teams have prevented the rise of a true hierarchy in the NHL. Meanwhile, the question in the NBA is usually more “how” and less “who.” The result is that, with the exception of the 70’s – when eight different teams won Championships – the NBA can be easily divided up into eras, with only sporadic aberrations like the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers or 2011 Mavericks. Even the Pistons and Rockets won their Championships in two-year spurts during eras where they were great but others were simply better. Since my birth in 1981, we’ve had the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics dominate the 80’s; the Chicago Bulls owned the 90’s; the Millennium was all about the San Antonio Spurs and the Lakers again; and this decade is shaping up to be more random, but we still had the Miami Heat in the Finals for four straight years, as well as a Western Conference so dominant that there are constant calls for realignment. I’ll grant that the NHL was the same way for a long time, but that hasn’t been the case in awhile. The Original Six era was one of NCAA-level corruption, and we can safely assume that when the NHL finally gave in to expansion, it was done by the original owners in the hopes that the other teams would just be carpets for the Original Six. Then the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975 – beating the Buffalo Sabres in 1975, who came from the 1969 expansion – and the Original Six probably shrugged those off as bones thrown to fans. They didn’t realize their years were over until the New York Islanders and Oilers won everything in sight during the 80’s, and since then the Original Six have been occasional winners against random teams from the Expansion Eras. And every member of the Original Six that won went through an extensive drought.
Show of Athleticism
The NBA and NHL both give us fluid and spectacular athleticism, although they are also both prone to bad stereotypes; basketball is frequently viewed as a long slog played by lazy players which any tall person can dominate, while hockey is seen as a glorified boxing match played on ice. Hockey, though, has the ability to turn its players into human battering rams. To play hockey at the highest level, a player has to have a certain awareness of where his body is going and what it’s capable of. Hockey players aren’t just fighting against other hockey players – they’re also competing with the surface. While performing a group of difficult-to-learn athletic skills, the hockey player has to also be playing a whole other sport, and the skills to stop, change direction without slowing down too much, and control a small rubber disc which is ruled by its own laws of physics. Basketball offers more what-you-see-is-what-you-get athleticism. Basketball players punch the laws of physics in the face. There’s no extra insider understanding of human movement, physics, kinesiology, or the sport necessary for people to understand what they’re seeing. When Chris Paul throws a perfectly-timed layup pass to Blake Griffin while Griffin is two and a half feet off the ground, which Griffin slams into the net, everyone who sees it understands they’ve just seen something superhuman.
The NBA. The athleticism and skill you can see in the NHL is a lot more subtle, and it tends to be lost on casual viewers if it’s a dump and chase game; or if a team is using the Neutral Zone Trap; or when four guys are trying to dig the puck out of the corner. Meanwhile, if a sports fan from Europe visited the United States and asked what our sports offer to match the spectacular athletes we see in European Soccer, the NBA is what you would show them.
The NBA has its merits, but there’s nothing like a white-knuckle playoff hockey game which goes into multiple overtimes. Unless you’re a fan of one of the teams playing. Then it’s just torturous.