Hockey

The NHL playoffs are better than the NBA’s right now

Hockey has achieved what basketball has lost: parity.

When the Cleveland Cavaliers dropped 43 points on the Boston Celtics in the first quarter of Game 5, it snuffed out all hope of drama. Should we have dared to hope? The Cavaliers strolled to a 135-102 win and conquered the Eastern Conference, again. They’ve lost once in the playoffs, and they’ll play the Golden State Warriors, who have lost zero times in the playoffs. We’ll now be treated to the third straight chapter of Cavs-Dubs. Goody.

If you expect storylines, suspense, and high stakes from the playoffs, this isn’t your year. Well, unless you’re willing to do the unthinkable, and watch the NHL instead. Last Thursday, as the Cavs ragdolled the Celtics, even Michael Wilbon and Charles Barkley found themselves making this most perplexing choice.

What did they find? On NBC Sports, in the deep frontier of basic cable, the Ottawa Senators faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Game 7 deathmatch. The Senators, once considered the easy out of mid-April, were now in Pittsburgh with a chance to unseat the champs and take a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. It was David v. Goliath, only we didn’t know who was going to win.

That resulted in something peculiar: a game that was fun to watch.

How might we have gotten to this place, where the fourth-most-popular league in America is briefly more watchable than the NBA, a genuinely mass-market league and the only serious challenger to the NFL?

Simple. Parity.

Wha? What is parity?

Parity is when you have 30 teams and more than 2 of them can win the trophy. In the early aughts, when NHL player salaries were getting out of hand, the players and owners negotiated a league-wide salary cap. No longer could the New York Rangers or Toronto Maple Leafs go out and just buy smaller-market teams’ best players. A GM’s mission became not just hunting for talent, but getting the best bang for the buck.

Twelve years after the salary cap was imposed, we see the fruit of that. Give or take, the NHL today has about a dozen teams with enough talent to win their conferences. We have great diversity: big teams and small teams, fast ones and slower ones, attacking teams and defensive teams.

Limited cash has made GMs more creative. Instead of throwing money at marquee players, they’ve hunted for bargains. Turns out, this results in a league that’s younger, faster, and more skilled. Land the right young players, and you can be a contender in a few short years.

Senators v. Penguins was a great example of NHL parity. Though the Senators were way overmatched, they were able to run the series out to seven games through disciplined defense and clutch goaltending.

And your point is?

That parity results in a league that’s more fun to watch. Consider this stat, proffered last week on the Hockey Central podcast: Since 2009, 34 percent of the NHL’s playoff series have gone to 7 games, and 11 percent of series have been sweeps.

Now look at the NBA: Since 2009, 20 percent of playoff series have gone to 7 games, while 20 percent have been sweeps, according to Basketball-reference.com.

So sweeps are more common in the NBA, and Game 7s are more common in the NHL. For hockey, that’s considered a sign of health: It indicates that the gap between playoff teams isn’t too big. That makes the outcomes less certain, which I would think is what makes the games more fun to watch.

What do we have in the NBA? Chuck Klosterman, speaking on Bill Simmons’ podcast, vented thusly:

Doesn’t it seem pretty obvious what’s happened here? If we move these teams toward the concept of building superteams, it does make the league more interesting, particularly during the regular season. But in the playoffs, there’s really only going to be one meaningful series.

It’s probably premature to declare the NBA a two-team league. But when the same two teams make the finals for three straight years, and they’re practically sweeping their way there, it’s probably worth asking some questions. Is this year a weird coincidence of LeBron’s peak and the Warriors’ heyday? Or might it indicate that the NBA has a long-term issue around competition?

So…your solution to this is that I watch the NHL playoffs?

Look, I will grant you that the NHL cannot match the NBA’s colorful personalities and intrigue. Nobody gives creative dap on the sidelines. Nobody in hockey, with one exception, dresses like Russ or Melo.

NHL players, by contrast, give bland, polite postgame quotes; we have to intuit their emotions from slight deviations from decorum. I’ll give you all that.

But it’s a sign of the game’s strength, not its weakness.

As we watch an NBA that’s as unequal as it’s been in a while, we see that teams depend a lot on individual stars. LeBron drives the Cavs. Curry and KD drive the Dubs. The Spurs and Celtics had zero chance as soon as they lost Kawhi and Isaiah.

In the NHL playoffs, no-name players score gigantic goals all the time. In the Pens-Sens Game 7, the goal that forced overtime was scored by the Sens’ Ryan Dzingel. Dzingel?, the entire hockey world went. Who?

But that’s playoff hockey: The randos often carry the day. It adds wildness and unpredictability to a sport that’s already fast and physical. The marketing is horrible but the product is sound: The games are fun, the teams are awesome, and the players are doing amazing things out there. It’s what basketball, and all sports, should be. NBA fans deserve better. Until they get it, may I recommend a diversion?

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