Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The playoff scenario: Sports writing’s most forgettable genre

Readable and possibly enthralling today, maybe, but I wouldn't touch it tomorrow and nor would you

I’ve just finished reading an instance of a curious phenomenon in sports journalism. I mean, most writing about sports can stand being re-read: an analysis of Stan Wawrinka’s backhand, or a report about P.V. Sindhu beating Carolina Marin, or an account of goal-scoring efforts from an Argentina-England match during the 1986 football World Cup, or an essay extolling Vijay Hazare batting heroics during the 1948 Adelaide Test. Sure, they might come to seem dated—the players are no longer around, or the game has changed dramatically, stuff like that. But they can remain readable, often enthralling.

What I just read, however, is not like that. Readable and possibly enthralling today, maybe, but I wouldn’t touch it tomorrow and nor would you. A year, a decade from now? Quite literally, forget it.

I refer, you might have guessed, to “what-if" articles about upcoming playoff scenarios. For example, the one I just read is about the National Basketball Association (the USA’s NBA) regular season, which wound to a close on Wednesday night. What’s left of the season is, of course, the play-offs. As a fan of the game, the playoffs are when I really begin following the NBA every year, because the stakes rise and so does the level of play. So I tend to spend much of my day, this time of year, reading about basketball, maybe watching some games, or highlights of games.

Which is why I ran across an article that the basketball journalist Eric Freeman posted at mid-day on Wednesday—that is, several hours before the final games of the regular season began. It’s called “NBA Playoff Picture: Everything at stake on the season’s final day". I read it because Freeman writes about the prospects of the NBA team I have an irrational fondness for, the Boston Celtics. 

That Wednesday morning, at stake for the Celtics was home-court advantage throughout much of the playoffs. The NBA playoffs proceed by seven-game series. In each series, the team with the better regular-season record has home-court advantage. That is, they play four of the seven games at home, in front of their fans—which is a definite plus. The Celtics had the best record in the Eastern Conference, which would guarantee them home-court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. But theirs was the best record only by a whisker over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Things could change that very Wednesday night.

So it was that Freeman set himself the task of analysing the possibilities. He started by writing: “The NBA’s regular season ends on Wednesday, which means that there’s only one day left to set the final standings and determine the shape of the playoff bracket." In particular, “the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers must sort out which team gets home-court advantage through the conference finals." This would happen depending on the results of the teams’ final games: the Celtics vs the Milwaukee Bucks, the Cavaliers vs the Toronto Raptors.

The Celtics would be “No. 1 if they beat the Bucks OR the Cavaliers lose to the Raptors [but] No. 2 if they lose to the Bucks and the Cavaliers beat the Raptors."

The Cavaliers would be “No. 1 if they beat the Raptors and the Celtics lose to the Bucks [but] No. 2 if they lose to the Raptors OR the Celtics beat the Bucks." (Which is really just a re-statement of the Celtics’ prospects).

Freeman went on: “It is probably in the Raptors’ best interest to rest players to better the Cavs’ chances of nabbing the No. 1 seed." Figure that for yourself.

There was much more in his article, including picking apart what he called “the most complicated scenario of the season’s final day". According to which the Miami Heat, for example, would be eliminated from the playoffs “if they lose to the [Washington] Wizards OR the [Indiana] Pacers beat the [Atlanta] Hawks and the [Chicago] Bulls beat the [New Jersey] Nets."

Dizzying? But only typical for such articles. Fans like me, grateful for Freeman’s analysis, read them avidly for the few hours before those final games, then they are forgotten forever. In fact, in consulting it for this essay, am I the only fan in the world who read it after Wednesday? That would be a singular distinction indeed.

That’s the NBA. Similar analytical efforts surface for every professional sport that has a playoff season. As last year’s edition of the IPL headed for a climax, for example, Shiva Jayaraman had this article on Sunday 22 May 2016. Take a look, and you’ll find Jayaraman has worked hard to fill it with classics of the genre. Like this: “Sunrisers will finish as the top team if they win against Kolkata Knight Riders. They could finish as the second team on NRR [Net Run Rate] even if they lose, but only if by a margin of 40 or less while Daredevils beat Royal Challengers but not by a big margin (not more than 71 runs)."

Imagine the fun Jayaraman must have had in calculating that “71" figure. Imagine fans of all those teams poring over his article that Sunday, biting their nails as they absorbed the various intricate possibilities. And now try to imagine how many people have read the article between that Sunday night and today, 11 months hence.

Is there any other field of human endeavour which might feature writing like Freeman’s and Jayaraman’s? Tense, relevant stuff, pored over excitedly for a few hours, then likely never read again? I’d like to know about it.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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