10 Reasons Why Stanley Cup Playoffs are better than the NBA Playoffs
There is no postseason like the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. The grueling, two-month journey to the most coveted trophy in North American professional sports is a must-watch event if only because of the greatness of the Cup itself.
Each spring, the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs go head-to-head with the NBA Playoffs for sports fans’ attention. In Canada, at least, it’s no competition – hockey always wins out. In the United States, it’s a different story. TV ratings for the NBA Finals tend to greatly exceed ratings for the Stanley Cup Final. But does the NBA really deserve to be No. 1 based on the merits of these two postseason tournaments?
No matter how you feel about hockey vs. basketball, you have to admit that the Stanley Cup is an iconic trophy that means everything to the players who pursue it. The special nature of a tournament involving something so storied can’t be denied. However, it’s not just about the prize at the end, it’s about the entertainment factor for fans who follow the journey to it.
Hockey lends itself to drama more than just about any other sport, and the speed of the game makes it so much fun to watch once your eye is properly trained in viewing it. Rare scoring, emotional intensity, hard hits, controversial penalties, and passionate fans can be found in other sports, but only hockey provides all of them at the same time.
Here is a look at 10 reasons, why it’s more fun to follow the Stanley Cup playoffs than whatever the National Basketball Association can offer at the same time of year.
10 Reasons Why Stanley Cup Playoffs are better than the NBA Playoffs
- Hockey Fights - Physical Play and Fighting
What would you rather see? A clean, NFL-style open-ice hit that levels an opposing player as it echoes throughout the arena or some guy slapping another guy on his way up to the basket? Most sports fans would choose the former.
People sometimes refer to basketball as a contact sport, but it’s nothing compared to hockey. The sheer danger of two bodies colliding at high rates of speed brings an added element to the Stanley Cup playoffs that the NBA playoffs can’t match. In an emotional game, the hits are harder and the cost of taking penalties is much greater.
Yes, the NHL is certainly known for its history of fighting, but that has always been part of the game and it serves an actual purpose. When two hockey players drop the gloves, it is almost always about one player standing up for a teammate or trying to send a message to wake up his own team. Players also know “the code” that surrounds fighting, which is why things tend to end peacefully once linesmen separate the players.
Fights in the NBA are rare, but when they do happen, they are very chaotic and disruptive. Many NBA fights result from personal disputes between two players and have no larger impact on the game. While NHL fights are controlled, NBA fights can get way out of hand since they are not allowed under the rules in the first place.
Let’s face it, fights can be entertaining if they have an underlying purpose related to the game. Fights between two people who don’t usually engage in such things can be disturbing, especially when they result from one player feeling disrespected for reasons no one else on the court readily understands.
- One player Can't Take over an Entire Game
One thing that makes hockey special is that it is a consummate team sport. Very few players are on the ice for as much as half the game, and everyone has to pass the puck to succeed. There are occasional end-to-end rushes for goals, but these are very rare and still require the player to beat a goaltender to finish them. If you go end-to-end uncontested in the NBA, you always score unless it’s your own fault.
Hockey markets itself to fans as a team game, while the NBA tends to highlight its individual stars much more. Because a basketball player can play all or most of the game without rest, the NBA’s superstars tend to dominate, leaving less room for unlikely heroes to emerge in the playoffs. Sometimes shutting down one player is enough to win a basketball game, but this is rarely the case in hockey.
We have all seen Michael Jordan and LeBron James take charge of a basketball game with a series of big shots, but we don’t see hockey players repeatedly taking shots on goal because they have to come off the ice between shifts and can’t maintain their energy for more than a minute at a time. The best a hockey player can do as far as ensuring the final outcome is deliver (or fail to deliver) in a big moment that shifts momentum toward or away from his team. Even a goaltender can’t take over an NHL game, because a goaltender can’t score. Only true team play leads to victories in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
- The Refs Stay Out of the Way
If you’ve ever watched the third period or overtime of an NHL playoff game, you might have noticed something about the officiating. Simply put, there aren’t too many penalty calls – or at least not as many as you would find at earlier points in the game.
NHL referees have traditionally shied away from allowing themselves to become the center of attention at crunch time – choosing instead to let the players decide the game. As a result, penalties in the third period are rare, and penalties in OT are almost nonexistent. You have to do something really egregious to get called for a penalty.
That doesn’t mean players aren’t breaking the rules. It means that there is a tacit agreement between players and officials -- another kind of code unique to the game – which allows to get away with more in the name of less officiating controversy.
In the NBA, a foul is a foul, and officials don’t hesitate to call them at any point in the game. It’s therefore more common to hear NBA fans and players griping about officiating as a problem down the stretch, whereas NHL fans understand that their referees and linesmen are trying to stay out of the way and let the players themselves determine the outcome.
- Divisional Rivalries
The NBA seeds its playoffs by conference, whereas the NHL playoff bracket is based on divisional records. While this can make it harder for higher-seeded teams, which sometimes have to play early-round games against teams that finished closer to them in the standings, it allows established regular-season rivalries to dominate the first two playoff rounds.
Consider that over the past three seasons alone, there have been two first-round Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning series and two Edmonton Oilers vs.Los Angeles Kings series. There has also been a Toronto vs. Montreal Canadiens series and a New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils series. More to the point, most of the first-round matchups have involved a divisional rivalry. Four of the six matchups mentioned here went the full seven games.
On the other hand, in its first round over the past three seasons, the NBA has also had two matchups occur twice – Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets vs. Boston Celtics -- as well as one close geographical matchup – Milwaukee Bucks vs. Chicago Bulls. Of these five series, two were sweeps and none went past five games.
It’s clear that by encouraging regular-season rivals to face each other in the first round, the NHL gets more drama out of its earliest matchups, making the playoffs more fun to watch from the start. However, it is fair to note that some hockey purists are not fans of the current NHL format.
- Power Plays > Free Throws
The cost of a rules infraction in hockey is steep. The offending player is removed from the ice and sent to the penalty box for either two, four, or five minutes while his shorthanded team must try to survive that stretch without giving up a goal. Since goals are particularly rare in the playoffs, and power-play situations produce more goals than normal 5-on-5 play, fans are treated to an intense struggle that can have a lasting impact on the game.
Basketball doesn’t give you that bang for your buck when it comes to teams having to pay for a player’s transgressions. If you foul another player in basketball, that player takes a couple of free throws. Since points are so plentiful in the NBA, that only really matters toward the end of particularly close games. The player who committed the foul gets to keep playing, but in hockey, that same player has to sit in an NHL penalty box and can’t be part of his team’s efforts to kill off the power play. Big difference, no?
Hockey also has penalty shots – exciting moments when everything stops for a one-on-one confrontation between skater and goalie. In most cases, penalty shots only result from situations where a defender had no choice but to pull down an opponent to prevent a breakaway. The NBA’s worst punishments -- flagrant foul calls – usually result from overly-aggressive play rather than desperate attempts to defend the basket.
- No Play-In tournament
Back in the days when the NHL had only 21 teams and 16 made the playoffs, fans of other sports would joke that hockey’s regular season was meaningless. They had a point, but the league’s expansion to 32 teams has solved that problem, because half the league now misses out on the postseason.
Ironically, as pro hockey has made its regular season more meaningful, pro basketball has managed to do the opposite by creating the NBA Play-In Tournament. There is no reason for a team that finished 10th in in its conference to potentially steal a playoff berth from a seventh-place team, particularly in a single- or double-elimination format. Why play a regular season at all if you are willing to let that happen?
Just look at the NHL and NBA standings from the past regular season. In hockey, every playoff team finished the season above the .500 mark. In fact, no NHL team in the playoffs was anything less than 10 games above .500. There were six teams above .500 that did not even make the playoffs, although some of those records were propped up by overtime losses, which the NBA does not have.
In the NBA, however, two teams below .500 – the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder – actually took part in the play-in event. While neither team made it into the 16-team playoff field, the fact that they even had a chance is kind of ridiculous.
During the playoffs, fans want to watch teams that earned their right to be there – not teams that snuck in because of some league gimmick.
- NHL Playoff Schedule - More Parity in the NHL
A quick review of the Stanley Cup playoffs’ first round tells you everything you need to know about parity in the NHL.
Florida eliminated Boston, and Seattle eliminated Colorado. These were upsets, of course, but they are not so unusual in playoff hockey because NHL teams are more closely aligned in terms of their competitive potential. That is largely by design, and it’s good for all markets, but it’s also because NHL teams need to have deeper rosters than the NBA.
Great NHL teams are built through the draft. Great NBA teams are often built through trades and free agency. Basketball’s trend toward bringing three superstars together on each team has hurt smaller-market clubs unable to attract marquee names. Hockey teams, on the other hand, own the rights to their draft picks for up to seven years, which gives them time to build a core.
Over the past 18 seasons since the NHL implemented a salary cap, 11 different teams have won the Stanley Cup and 11 other teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final before losing. That’s 22 teams who played for the Cup on the biggest stage.
Now consider the NBA over that same period. Nine teams won championships, but only three others reached the NBA Finals. That’s only 12 teams finding the spotlight over 18 years. In addition, Golden State and Cleveland met each other in the Finals for four consecutive years during this period. That gets old in a hurry for fans of any other team.
- The Final Minutes Don't Take Forever to Play
The closing minutes of a close playoff game are always dramatic, no matter what the sport, but the NBA takes it to extremes. Between the multitude of timeouts provided to each team and the trailing team’s incentive to slow down the clock by constantly fouling its opponent, basketball is shameless in trying fans’ patience.
Yes, it’s exciting to think that a game is never over until it’s over, but many NBA teams simply drag out the process of losing. The fans’ time can feel wasted – and their agony prolonged -- in those situations. The NHL, by contrast, allows each team only one timeout per game, and those timeouts often go unused. There are no fouls to give as the seconds tick down, and clock stoppages are dictated only by the rules of the game itself, not one team’s effort to delay the outcome.
This is especially true in the playoffs, because postseason drama is only truly exciting if it’s authentic. If an NBA team is trailing by 10 points with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, all the clock stoppages in the world probably won’t make a difference –yet they still happen.
- The Stanley Cup - A Much Richer Tradition
Let’s start by comparing the Stanley Cup and the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy, shall we?
The Stanley Cup is older than the NHL itself, dating back to 1893, when it was introduced as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup by Lord Stanley of Preston, then Governor General of Canada. Within a year, the name Stanley Cup had taken hold, and that is what it has been known as ever since. It is the oldest professional team-sports trophy in North America with 130 years to its credit.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy, which goes to the NBA champion, was originally called the NBA Finals Trophy from the league’s first championship series in 1947 until 1964. It was then renamed the Walter A. Brown Trophy in honor of the former Boston Celtics owner. In 1977, the trophy was redesigned, and in 1984 it was given its current name in honor of a former league commissioner.
It’s hard to get too excited about a trophy that’s history amounts to an identity crisis. On top of that, it’s only two feet tall and weighs less than 16 pounds. Meanwhile, including its iconic base, the Stanley Cup is just under three feel tall and weighs a full 37 pounds. When you win the Stanley Cup, you lift it over your head and skate around the ice with teammates – a tradition that goes way back. Nothing like that exists for NBA championship winners.
This is just one of many traditions that make the NHL playoffs so special. Superstitions developed over decades have created a postseason culture that players and fans embrace. Many NHL players do not shave their faces, during playoff runs, which has resulted in some memorable playoff beards. In addition, nobody touches the conference championship trophies before the Stanley Cup Final, and no player touches the Stanley Cup itself until he has won it, rather than risk a lifetime jinx.
Granted, the NHL is nearly 30 years older than the NBA and has had more time to build its traditions, but the NBA has yet to come up with anything that compares to these NHL customs.
- Sudden-Death Overtime
This one is rather self-explanatory. As in the NBA, an NHL regular-season overtime lasts five minutes, but in the playoffs, the NHL gets much more serious, which makes it far more exciting than overtime in just about any other sport.
Each NHL overtime is treated like a regular period – 20 minutes in length. The teams continue to play overtime periods until a winner is determined, even if they are there all through the night. In 1936, the longest overtime game in Stanley Cup playoffs history went into a sixth overtime before it ended. That’s almost two full extra games after the final buzzer. As recently as 2000, a 7:30 p.m. playoff game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins reached a fifth overtime that ended at 2:35 the next morning.
What makes these overtimes so special is the sudden-death effect. Next goal wins. That means an OT can end in seconds or hours. There is no way of knowing. Meanwhile, in the NBA, a full five minutes of OT must be played before a winner can be declared. Multiple overtime games can happen, but the lack of a sudden-death factor creates a far less dramatic scenario.
Now, if the NBA ever went to a “next basket wins” format, there might be some room for debate here, but that would be a very silly way to decide a game without at least having goaltenders involved. If you want to learn more, here is everything you need to know about NHL Playoff overtime rules.
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