The Regular Season Does Matter After All

The 82 game schedule of the NBA can be mind numbing. At odd points in the season you find yourself saying, “can we move along to April please?” The season being a gatekeeper for the playoffs is a false but common perception. While games on the schedule on Christmas Day and a few other prime time spots are entertaining, they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things because, as was often pointed out, nothing is on the line. Who cares about a February game in Minnesota, the fourth game in five nights. At best, the regular season is an inconvenience to the real season, the playoffs, or it is a diversion for NFL games that bore.

The evidence was clear in October. We knew who the top-4 seeds were going to be as long as LeBron James was in the league. So take a couple of months off and check in come March. There was no sense in tuning in to the NBA until after the All-Star Break.

Phil Jackson used to have a rule. After 20 games you knew who was going to be in the playoffs and who was gong to be in the lottery. It was that same refracted theory about the regular season being the junior varsity. It  remained in tact this season as everyone geared up for Cavs-Warriors 3 sixth months down the line.

But then something crazy happened. The players tossed off the regular season doesn’t matter crumbs and competed. There were incredible records and performances.  Young players improved. Experienced players aged, were beat up with the fatigue bat and had to sit out games or deal with injuries; it impacted wins and losses.  It was a league where the catastrophic Lakers beat the Warriors and Spurs, and the no defense Timberwolves beat the Clippers and Raptors. The Atlanta Hawks subs beat a team with LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

Set LeBron aside. Is there really that much difference between James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Or Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard? Or Paul George and Draymond Green? A stable of skilled players with near equal talents makes the league unable to fall back on the just wait for the playoffs to start fugue. The talent is dispersed. Teams have to win to get that first seed.

Is it necessary, playoff seeding? The Cavs won a game 7 championship on the road but it was a last second shot. Three years earlier, the Heat beat the Spurs at home in a game 7 that went down to the final minute with a Tim Duncan missed layup. Three years before that, the Lakers beat the Celtics at home in a game 7 after the Celtics had a 13 point lead and the Lakers needed two Sasha Vujacic free throws to ice it in the closing seconds. Teams need home court and you get home court by winning games in the regular season.

No one on planet earth thought the Celtics would have the best record in the east. Before the season started everyone was penciling in the Pacers for the two seed because of Thaddeus Young and Jeff Teague. Oops. How about the Thunder not making the playoffs? While Russell Westbrook was on many MVP boards, no one put Westbrook and Oscar in the same sentence. And James Harden couldn’t even make the All-NBA team last season so a MVP front runner-ship was doing way too much.

The Jazz were the consensus to break through the playoff scrum but so were the Timberwolves. When the Heat were 9-20, who penciled them in as losing the 8th seed on the last day of the season, or for Dion Waiters to be their MVP?

The point is the NBA regular season has always mattered. Everything that happened the past six months has set up what will happen the next two months. Warriors-Cavs 3 may happen. But it may not. This is the most vulnerable defending champ team LeBron has entered the playoffs with.

Last year isn’t erased. The Warriors were down 3-1 to the Thunder and won. The Warriors were up 3-1 to the Cavs and lost. The Warriors won a record 73 games but had their heart broken. If anything, the NBA is unpredictable. The playoffs are the créme de la créme. But the regular NBA season, even though it is too long, is Act I. It sets the story, introduces the characters, identifies the villain, dramatizes the conflict, erases the weak, kills the vulnerable and the whiny, and creates anticipation for the heroic to be heroes.

The regular season gave us Russ and his record, and James Harden and his D’Antoni reincarnation, and Kawhi and LeBron MVP efforts, and KD doing usual KD things. Isaiah Thomas was simply sensational. John Wall upped his game. Giannis became a bona fide star. The Clippers underachieved and bored everybody, so did the Hawks. Paul George was angry a lot of the time. The 2016-17 season answered the question: what happens when Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan retire.

Nothing. Everything. The games go on. The stars rise up. October- April matters.