Every sports league has a right to create its own set of rules. And it’s only natural for a new league to face greater scrutiny for the way it operates than a league with a long established tradition, a way of doing things that won’t change very easily.
The bj-league, for example, is only in its fourth season of existence. But it’s perfectly acceptable to question why overall point differential has become the league’s tiebreaker to determine playoff seedings for teams in the same conference if they have identical records at the end of the regular season.
I contacted the NBA media relations office in New York and requested a copy of its playoff tiebreaker procedures memo. I have the copy in front of me as I write this.
The NBA uses point differential as its seventh criteria (“better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents,” the memo stated) for two teams with identical records at the end of a season.
Granted, the NBA has divisions and conferences unlike the bj-league which only has two conferences at this point, but the overall process is an interesting study in contrasts.
The NBA’s top six criteria are as follows:
• Division winner (whether or not the teams are in the same division)
• Head-to-head record
• Better record against teams in own division (if two divisional foes are tied)
• Better record against all teams in own conference
• Better record against playoff-eligible teams in own conference
• Better record against playoff-eligible teams in the other conference
The Tokyo Apache and Sendai 89ers entered the final week of the regular season with the possibility of having their playoff seedings determined by their point differentials — that is if Tokyo had lost both games and Sendai had won two.
The same was true for the Osaka Evessa and the Takamatsu Five Arrows.
It turned out differently however. The Apache (33-19) swept the Saitama Broncos and nabbed the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed and the right to host a first-round playoff series on May 9-10 at Ariake Colosseum, and the 89ers (31-21) took two from the Niigata Albirex BB to lock up the No. 3 seed.
Throw out their overall records for a moment, and you are left with these numbers: Tokyo won six of eight contests against Sendai. Tokyo averaged 85.5 points per game and allowed 84.0. And that’s where its +1.5 point differential comes from at the end of the 52-game season. Sendai’s numbers are similar: 84.2, 83.0 and +1.2.
In the Western Conference, the Evessa, winners of three straight titles, wrapped up the No. 2 seed by winning two straight against the Five Arrows on April 18-19 and then doing the same against the Oita HeatDevils last weekend.
Osaka (35-17) and Takamatsu (33-19), which earned a weekend split with the Rizing Fukuoka, also could’ve needed the tiebreaker to determine their playoff fate.
And, boy was it ever close. Look at the numbers: Osaka scored 87.8 ppg and yielded 83.4 to give it a +4.4 point differential, whereas No. 3 seed Takamatsu’s statistical breakdown comes up this way: 86.9, 82.3 and +4.6. The teams went 4-4 against each other this season and will renew their rivalry in the playoffs on Saturday in Kansai.
After requesting feedback from columnists who cover the NBA about the bj-league’s tiebreaker procedure, I received an interesting mix of commentary via e-mail. I also asked them if they felt the bj-league’s point differential criteria was a gimmick.
Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto, author of “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association,” dished out this insight:
“I HATE the idea of using points as a tiebreaker . . . would lead to running up the score, not using your bench and really not doing anything to help team basketball. Head-to-head (competition) means the most.
“In the NBA playoffs, you need to win 16 games to win the title. It doesn’t matter if the margin of victory is one or 100 points, just win the game — and that’s how it should be.”
The inimitable Peter Vecsey of the New York Post offered a different perspective.
“No, I’ve never heard any basketball league use point differential; head-to-head competition always determines first playoff tiebreaker,” Vecsey wrote. “But I like your league’s creative overall stance better. It’s more meaningful because all teams are considered over the whole season vs. just four or six or eight games, depending on how many it is each team plays an opponent.
“I don’t see it as a gimmick and there’s nothing wrong with motivating teams to play both ends of the court at all times in order to record the best point differential. General managers, coaches and announcers such as Hubie Brown hold that particular statistic in high esteem.”
Naturally, some of Vecsey’s media colleagues beg to differ.
“I believe head-to-head to be much fairer,” Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston told me. “The Cavs rested LeBron James in several fourth quarters, which narrowed the score of blowouts. To play him then in the interest of an overall points tiebreaker would have been counterproductive to the team’s goal of winning the championship.”
David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel agrees with Livingston.
“The only league I can think of that has a similar tiebreaker is the NFL,” he wrote. “Of course, it’s a lot easier to pull off when teams play 16 games as opposed to however many a basketball league does.
“I guess the motivation is to keep games meaningful in some sense until the final buzzer. The downside is it forces coaches to keep their better players on the floor, ignore their benches, run up scores, be unsportsmanlike and probably hire an assistant with a math degree who can keep track of how many points they need to score that night to stay ahead in the differential game. It just seems that the policy causes far more problems than it solves.”
Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle passed along this concise commentary: “It does sound like a gimmick, but every league does it differently.”
Nobody said the bj-league can’t alter its tiebreaker procedure for future seasons. In fact, that would be a step in the right direction.
After all, teams should be rewarded for winning — nothing more, nothing less — regardless of how they win.