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Friday, May 21, 2010

HOOP SCOOP

Time for league to adopt real playoff system


Nobody wants their business referred to as a "Mickey Mouse operation," unless, of course, they happen to work for the Walt Disney Company.

Ed Odeven

The bj-league's approach to playoff basketball, however, commences with a gimmick and its overall approach to the playoffs leaves one with only one conclusion:

This is a Mickey Mouse operation.

What am I referring to?

The league's use of a 10-minute tiebreaker, if necessary, after Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs to determine which team advances to the Final Four — that is, if those teams happen to both have one win apiece.

The Niigata Albirex BB reached the Final Four after losing Game 2 against the Sendai 89ers but winning the subsequent tiebreaker on Sunday.

Yes, saving money is important — the cost of renting a venue in Japan is outrageously high — but a true playoff format is a wiser investment. The Final Four is a single-elimination format, so it makes more sense to have the first round feature the same format, right?

Why?

The league's very reputation suffers on a global scale in this era of instant information, according to outgoing Shiga Lakestars coach Bob Pierce, who coached the team for two seasons but didn't have his contract extended.

Pierce should know — he guided the Lakestars to a playoff berth in the team's second season, has served as an assistant coach for the Japan national team, worked as a coach in the JBL and also been an Asia-based scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Players talk, agents talk, coaches talk, and people form quick opinions about a league's leadership, the quality of its competition and the intelligence of its administration based on a few quick observations, including things as baffling as a 10-minute gimmick.

"It's been very frustrating the last few days hearing the reported comments as our five (foreign) players tell about the reaction of their friends and former teammates now playing in leagues around the world," Pierce said on Tuesday. "I just felt like we lost five years of striving for respect.

"Players like (Shiga forward) Luke Zeller — who played college ball at Notre Dame — came here because he heard such good things about the bj-league from Ryukyu's George Leach (Indiana), who was working out at the same place in Indianapolis as Luke.

"Negative comments about our league can have the opposite effect, which is why I don't see why the league would want to continue this format."

On a related note, the bj-league's other gimmicky tool, the point differential (the difference between the average points scored vs. points allowed) to determine a team's place in the standings if they have the same won-loss record has very few admirers, too. In fact, you can say it violates the very essence of sportsmanship; encouraging teams to run up the score is a direct consequence of this foolish rule.

I pressed Pierce to elaborate on his utter distaste for the mini-tiebreaker. He noted that word circulates in the basketball community.

In fact, Pierce told me, Butler coach Brad Stevens, who has quickly become one of the sport's most highly respected figures at any level, has heard about the bj-league's quirky playoff format during contact he has had with Zeller.

"All last week as we were preparing for the playoffs, guys like Luke would mention a former Notre Dame teammate playing somewhere who laughed when Luke tried to explain this 'third-game system,' or (forward) Chris Schlatter mentioning guys he played with in Serbia or Germany who thought it was the craziest thing they had ever heard," Pierce said.

"It's just that teams like Shiga in the bj-league rely on players and agents saying good things about the league, how well they were treated, how nice the fans were, payments could be trusted, etc.," he continued. "And this word of mouth among players and agents helps to convince many players to come to Japan to play in the bj-league rather than play in Europe for more, but possibly riskier, money."

Other than saving money, the bj-league hasn't offered one logical reason to not play a real best-of-three series in the first round, the conference semifinals, nor has it explained why the first round should differ from the format of the Final Four.

Again, this defies logic. It confuses fans, baffles players and gives journalists plenty of reason to rip league management for its short-sighted planning.

Pierce along with other progressive thinkers see the big picture and know the bj-league ought to change its system.

His poignant commentary put things in their proper perspective. And I respect him for not being afraid to speak his mind, especially in a culture where individual viewpoints and anti-establishment sentiment is lacking. Far too often, people embrace the status quo, accepting the fact that things will always stay the same.

That's nonsense!

Change is necessary, in all societies and sports leagues.

So why is change such a critical issue for the bj-league?

Well, because it's a growing league trying to gain relevance on national, regional, continental and global levels.

From Sapporo to Staten Island, people know that the NBA is the world's premier basketball league. Other leagues seek to enhance their reputation or maintain their spot on the pecking order.

"All leagues around the world," Pierce said, "are viewed in a kind of hierarchy (after the NBA): Spain, Italy, and Greece at the top. Mid-level leagues like Germany can be a nice place to play, but then you get pigeon-holed and the top leagues will only see you as not being good enough to play at their level, so you can never move up.

"At the bottom are often leagues like Mexico's, where players are viewed as little more than Y (YMCA) pickup players. Japan and Asia have been at the bottom, but rising salaries have attracted better players to the JBL (Japan), KBL (South Korea) and CBA in China.

"Former NBA players in the CBA have started to put that league on players' radar."

Pierce cited a recent Hoop Scoop column on Cleveland Cavaliers forward Jawad Williams, a former JBL player with the Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, as an example of the shifting perception of Asian basketball.

"Players change their view of a league and see it is a possible steppingstone," he stressed, "rather than a ceiling on their potential.

"Now the bj-league has been slowly moving up, with some of our guys seeing the bj-league as a better alternative to offers they had in Germany," added Pierce, speaking specifically about Zeller, Schlatter and 2009-10 bj-league rebounding king Gary Hamilton.

Trusting management plays a big factor in a league's reputation.

"(Former Cornell standout) Ryan Rourke came to play in Shiga for less money than he made in Portugal, but knowing he could trust that he would be paid and wouldn't have to fight management every month to collect a paycheck," Pierce said.

Rourke's story illustrates one positive aspect of the bj-league's business culture.

On the other hand, the league's postseason plan sends a different message.

"But stories about this crazy playoff system may make the next guy who has to choose between a mid-level European team or the bj-league go to where they play 'real basketball,' in Europe rather than a league that will be seen as amateurish and gimmicky if this continues," Pierce concluded.

And I believe even Mickey Mouse would agree with Pierce's final analysis.



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