Saturday, June 9, 2018

The NHL, NBA and the inevitability of expectations

As both the NHL and NBA seasons ended within a day of each other, it gives us a good inflection point to look at both leagues and where they stand after another completed season, and the comparsions are much starker than they used to be.

The NHL's season, and playoffs, were dominated by unexpected and the cinderella runs. Watching the most snakebit postseason team in the last decade perhaps in all sports go up against an expansion team in its first season is quite the marked difference from Cavs/Warriors part four. These Stanley Cup Playoffs were certainly missing something in spite of both the Capitals and Golden Knights doing what they did; the playoffs were filled with more uncompetitive games than usual and the fewest OT games since 2000 (10 to 9) and none after the second round, but no one could see this Final coming, not even in Vegas or Washington. Meanwhile, the usually dramaless NBA playoffs had plenty of it before the seemingly inevitable Cavs/Warriors round four, which for more than awhile wasn't so inevitable at all. One league prides itself on the unexpected, even when a team repeats as champion, and the other prides itself on the inevitable, even with an unexpected path to the inevitable.

The Stanley Cup Finals ended with primal joy from the Capitals who finally exercised all their spring demons and ignited a celebration in Washington that made the Warriors almost muted celebration after dispatching the overmatched Cavs seem like they just got out of watching Infinity War for a third time (complete with mindless popcorn munching). Both Finals series ended prematurely but while in the NHL we were all wanting more, in the NBA we were wanting for something. As soon as JR Smith forgot to look up at the clock, the inevitability of the result was there for all to see. It wasn't quite like that when Braden Holtby made his miracle save late in Game 2 (because the entire world has lingering Caps skepticism that will never go away), but even drawing the comparison puts into the mind's eye how different these supposedly similar leagues are, and how much farther they're drifting apart.

Every move the NBA has made under Adam Silver has been calculated greatness. Major sports leagues are often run poorly and the comissioners are under the ire of the fans and media for ordering the wrong cut of steak at dinner, but the NBA contradicts that at every turn, and for the better. It seems as the league becomes more dominated by three to four teams, the product is more compelling than ever in spite of the certain inevitability of the season's outcome.

Meanwhile in the NHL, Gary Bettman even gets booed when he's awarding the Cup in Las Vegas. As the product on the ice gets better as the game gets faster and scoring has gone up, the league seems less interesting than ever. This magical Stanley Cup final between the two unlikeliest teams to make the final since maybe the Oilers and Hurricanes happened by complete accident. The NHL's staunch insistence on psychotic parity means that the worst Caps teams in years and an expansion team making the Final makes perfect sense in the twisted logic of the NHL's parity. Compared to the NBA, where the Finals series seems inevitable in July, it's a stark contrast. And the contrast isn't just evident in the games themselves.

The NHL's major "social media moments" during the Finals were a football player joking about how easy hockey is to play, and then Twitter promptly freaking and Ryan Miller telling Chrissy Teigen that being a goalie is in fact hard to do, while in the NBA the wife of a GM had burner accounts revealing confidential injury information about Sixers players. See the contrast? The NHL is hankering for casual relevance with just about anyone outside of the hockey bubble, while the NBA seemingly walks into it without trying. It's as if with everything each league does, the NHL's try-hard sweaty insecurity is dwarfed by the NBA's calm coolness at every possible turn.

Both offseasons are going to be dominated by superstar free agents going to market. In the NHL this almost never happens, but the drama of LeBron or any other superstar's free agency in the NBA now seems normal and dominates all the oxygen in sports because that move will dictate the future of a league. If John Tavares had a brain cramp and signed with Montreal, he could easily miss the playoffs next season (or even if he stayed with the Islanders). Watching the sagas will be eminently different too. There will be LeBron speculation and gossip every day from every corner of every alley, while John Tavares speculation is seemingly relegated to the same sort of gossip, but entirely less interesting. People will read into every social media post from LeBron looking for coded clues to see if that means he's going to be Laker or Sixer, while the radio silence from the Tavares camp is almost astounding to watch in today's social media age. 

Even on draft night, there's a stunning contrast in fortunes for the leagues. While Marvin Bagley thinks the assumption that DeAndre Ayton is going to be the number one pick is "disrespectful", the NHL Draft is dominated by one Swedish defenseman who everyone knows is going first overall but can't actually say it because in hockey, you can't actually say "I" in interviews about even yourself.  

Both leagues are swimming in money, and even hockey's miniscule popularity is on the upswing. Ratings from the Stanley Cup Final indicate that perhaps, the leagues fans are shaking their parochial nature, even if it is to just to see if a team that yours tortured finally could overcome their demons (thanks Pittsburgh) or to just watch good hockey at all (hello Buffalo). The NBA Finals ratings clearly showed Cavs/Dubs fatigue after great ratings throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. And while the team that LeBron goes to next year will probably be the favorite to play the Warriors in the Final (or Western Conference Final), even the league's most awful teams are somewhat compelling in a way that the NHL could never get with Arizona, Buffalo, Florida or even Edmonton. But that can't change what has always been constant about both leagues; one tries desperately to be relevant and can't get there, while the other smoothly goes from one success to another without even trying.

Teams not in the LeBron sweepstakes and those not named the Sixers, Celtics and Warriors might as well take the season off while they trust the process, while in the NHL it actually seems to take more effort to be consistently bad than fluke one season into a great playoff run. The teams that tank in the NHL almost never get rewarded for being that bad, while in the NBA, the only way to have any chance if you're not one of the best three teams is to tank and hope luck falls your way once or twice to have a three or four year window with a star before he departs for greener, more lucrative pastures.

None of these observations about the NHL and NBA juxtaposed against each other are new, and none are meant to be a #PleaseLikeMySport take from someone who is firmly in team hockey. But after watching the two seasons end the way they did and the way that they were shaped is the perfect contrast, especially when considering one league is expontentially growing in popularity and the other only knows how to spin its wheels. So much goes into why one league is popular and the other isn't, from the marketability of stars to the presentation and coverage of the games to the accessibility of each sport, but in a time where the NFL's goliath is falling from grace, there should be an opportunity for the one lacking in almost every department to finally take advantage of one that may be open, but they are never able to do it. 

With the NBA, everything looks so effortless, calculated and designed and every almost every decision pays off in spades. The NHL's best moments of the last decade are almost all happy accidents, and when they do make a smart decision, they're burnt into the ground before anyone can appreciate the smart decision itself. That's why the least compelling NBA Finals in a decade plus, even after an unexpected path to get there, felt like a subsuming tidal wave of intrigue whereas the most unexpected of Stanley Cup Finals perhaps ever felt like accidentally tripping over a vein of gold in the Nevada desert, which is something they'll never do again. 

The sports ecosystem would be better if the NHL was anywhere near half of what the NBA is, or is becoming, but a league with so many stars, storylines and a great product to show can't ever seem to get out of its own way, whereas for a league whose results feel inevitable and sometimes academic, it is more compelling than ever.

Gary Bettman may be a basketball guy, but he only wishes his league could do what his former league seems to do with ease, and after the seasons for each league have concluded, there is no easier line to draw between the two than this year. 

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