There may be wide disagreement in the NBA about who will triumph in the league's "second season," but 76ers Coach Billy Cunningham sums up the consensus among the league's big winners on one subject when he says, "No one wants to be in a mini-series."
When the playoffs start next week, the four division winners get a bye and the other eight teams engage in best-of-three matchups, which have come to be known as the "dreaded mini-series."
"You can have an outstanding year like we're having," Cunningham says, "and still end up in a three-game series. You're usually not sure who you'll play until the last minute, so there's not much time to prepare. It's awfully tough. Look what happened last year."
Three of last season's four favorites were bounced in the mini-series: New York fizzled against Chicago in two games; Portland bowed out in three to K.C.; and Houston and Moses Malone (left) stunned L.A. and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Only the 1980-81 Sixers won as expected, sweeping Indiana.
Of course, the mini-series isn't loathed by everyone. Teams that barely qualify welcome it, for the same reason Bluegrass Tech is grateful there's no shot clock when it plays Louisville. The shorter the contest, the less telling is the talent. "I like the mini-series," says Pacer Guard Johnny Davis. "If a team isn't ready to play, it can be beaten. Once you make the playoffs, it's a new season." And to most fans, a mini-series is like a mini-skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep things interesting.
But the league's upper crust feels that two poor outings shouldn't neutralize 50 or more regular-season wins—as in the cases of the Knicks and Lakers last year. "I don't mean to take anything away from Houston," says Laker Coach Pat Riley, taking something away from Houston, "but there's no doubt we would have won a longer series last year."
The mini-series was conceived in 1977, and until last year's three upsets, only two of the 20 such series had been lost by the team with the better regular-season record.
Then came 1981's reversals, and a clamor for a change. But the NBA elders would think twice before getting rid of the concept. More teams make the playoffs—and therefore more money is made.
Riley suggests a five-game "midi-series" be played in the same seven-day period now allotted the mini-series. "Make it an endurance contest," he says. "Let that be the handicap for not winning the division."
To spot this season's likely mini-series upsets, look for clubs whose lineups were in flux earlier in the year but have recently found their stride. Atlanta, for instance, had early injuries to key players—notably Dan Roundfield and John Drew—which made it tough to get going. Last season's Bulls won their last eight games before blitzing the Knicks. Says Jack Ramsay of his Trail Blazers' loss to K.C. last year, "We didn't have Jim Paxson. They had injuries, too—Phil Ford—but they had been playing a while without him. We had to adjust to Paxson's loss quickly."
Other likely spoilers are teams that hone a playoff edge in a tough race to get into postseason play. Last spring Kansas City and Houston didn't earn mini-series berths until the regular season's final days; they went on to eliminate Portland and L.A., which had qualified easily and early. "Last year we had nothing to shoot for in the final 10 days of the season," says Riley. "We locked up second in our division, lost our last two regular-season games and weren't sharp in the playoffs."
The Lakers have wised up this season, figuring it's best to win the division and leave the mini-series to those teams with pint-sized ambitions. As the Kings' Ford says, "You can't be eliminated while you're waiting."