By Frank Deford
April 02, 2008

In some sports, notably with children, there is something called the "mercy rule," which stipulates that if one team gets so many points ahead of its outclassed opponent, the game is officially concluded at that point out of sympathy for the poor, no-chance loser.

I believe there should also be mercy rules for fans.

Specifically, no team in any sport should be inflicted upon fans in the playoffs if it has not had a winning percentage during the regular season. Presently, for example, three perfectly awful teams in the Eastern Conference of the NBA are, in the words of those chronicling the action, fighting or scrapping for the eighth and last playoff spot.

No fan deserves to suffer such playoff travesty. Mercy, please. Sorry, you don't win more games than you lose, you gotta go home.

It is all the more unfair for bums in one conference to become playoff fodder when other more qualified teams in the other conference are sent home, the sad victim of geography-ism. The NBA West, for example, is loaded with good teams. In fact, it's a strange coincidence how unbalanced all three of our popular team sports are. Never in baseball history, I would venture, has one league been so far superior to the other. The American League now appears to be the only major league. And in the NFL, the American Conference is much the better.

Paradoxically, though, this lopsidedness doesn't always result in a team from the better conference winning the championship. You may recall, for instance, that the New York Giants, from the woebegone National Conference, actually won the Super Bowl this year over the New England Patriot juggernaut. Two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals, barely a .500 club, got hot in the playoffs and took the World Series. And although the NBA West is so top-heavy this year, the Boston Celtics may well be the best club of all. It doesn't hurt during the regular season to be the big fish in a small pond.

And while we're yet in the midst of March Madness, may I dare venture to say that the NBA -- and the National Hockey League, too -- both conduct their postseason stupidly? They have patterned their playoffs after baseball, by having teams compete in seven-game series. That's crazy. Series are common to baseball. They are not to basketball and hockey, where teams play only one game at a time against each opponent during the season.

Series succeed in baseball because a variety of pitchers are used, making each game somewhat different. In basketball and hockey, though, a series becomes stultifyingly reminiscent of what Edna St. Vincent Millay said: "It's not true that life is one damn thing after another -- it's one damn thing over and over."

The NBA should start its playoffs with Olympic-style round robins in the various divisions, finishing up with a knockout Final Four, just like the colleges do. Yes, it would mean sacrificing several home gates, but when elimination is so imminent, when it's one game and out, as it is in the NFL, the World Cup, the Olympics, it concentrates the mind of the fan. An NBA Final Four would bring far more attention and drama -- and ultimately more television money -- to the NBA than it's current drawn-out Edna St. Vincent Millay series. Less really can be more.

And also, don't let rotten teams into the playoffs. Please: Mercy.

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