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David Aldridge

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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Finals conspiracy theories prove to be as durable as tinfoil

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Posted May 28 2009 12:03PM

Another year, another run on tinfoil at your local Safeway, Piggly Wiggly or Ralph's.

Every year, every nutbag with a computer and a complete lack of imagination writes some version of the following: David Stern wants the Lakers and (fill in the blank team here) in the Finals. You know the refs are gonna make that happen. The NBA is rigged. It's no better than pro wrestling.

I can't tell you how many people have been on Facebook with some variation of this. Isn't David Stern gonna be mad if Orlando and Denver are in the Finals? David Stern wants Kobe and LeBron in the Finals. David Stern must really be ticked off.

Every year, these podunks say, Stern, an unnamed cabal of referees, executives from ESPN, ABC and Turner, Phil Knight, Craig Sager's tailor -- and, occasionally and just for laughs, Carrot Top -- get together and make sure that the only teams in the Finals are from major-market cities. The theory goes that the NBA, desperate to regain the ratings it had in the Jordan Era, manipulates the Playoffs to ensure its biggest stars play in its biggest series. Because only the NBA is concerned with high ratings for its championship series/game. Bud Selig couldn't care less if Toronto and San Diego are in the World Series. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman loves an Edmonton-Florida Stanley Cup Final. PGA commish Tim Finchem would be delighted if Tiger misses the cut at the Masters.

Now, you know where you're reading this, and you may know what I do for a living. So you can dismiss this as butt-covering by a league apologist who works for one of its television partners, or that I doth protest too much. Can't stop you if your car is already going down that road.

But over 25 or so years in this profession, I like to deal in things that us fancy-pants reporters call "facts." Here are some:

The San Antonio Spurs have won four NBA titles since 1999.

The Spurs are ratings death.

They are ratings death because you all, in the main, are rank hypocrites. More on that later.

The longer a playoff series goes, the more people watch. (You can look this up, or you can trust me. It's true.) So a seven-game series is ratings gold.

In the last 10 Finals series, there have been two 4-0 sweeps (in 2002 and '07), three five-game series ('99, '01 and '04) and four six-game series ('00, '03, '06 and '08). Only one series has gone the full, ratings-exploding seven -- San Antonio's 4-3 victory over Detroit in '05. Which, again, you didn't watch, 'cause the Spurs were in it. If the league is rigging the Finals for maximum viewership, it's doing a lousy job. (By the way, do you know how many times Michael Jordan's Bulls played a seven-game Finals series? Zero. Out of six.)

More facts:

• New York, the largest TV media market in the United States according to a 2004 Nielsen Media ranking, hasn't made the Finals since 1999, and hasn't won a championship in 36 years.

• Los Angeles, No. 2 in that Nielsen study, has lost its last two Finals appearances since its threepeat from 2001-03.

• Chicago, No. 3, didn't make a single Finals from 1966-'91, when Jordan, Scottie Pippen and company reached full maturity. And since The Last Dance in '98, the Bulls haven't been back.

• Philadelphia, fourth, has been to one Finals (2001) since '83.

• Boston, fifth, won the title last season -- its first championship series appearance since '86.

• San Francisco (the Warriors), No. 6, has been in three Finals series since the franchise moved from Philadelphia in '62. None of those appearances has come since '75.

• Dallas, seventh, has made one Finals in the Mavericks' 29-year history.

• Washington, eighth, has not only not made the Finals since '79, but hasn't been to a conference final since '79.

• Detroit, 11th, has been in two Finals since the Pistons' back-to-back titles in '89 and '90.

• And Miami, No. 17, has made one Finals since the franchise's inception in '88.

You would think someone as all-powerful as Stern -- who can, apparantly, control the tides -- would have a better batting average. How is it that a city like Portland (the 23rd-largest TV market) has been in as many Finals over the last 35 years (two) as New York City? How has Indianapolis (number 25) been in the Finals more recently than 'Frisco? Orlando (No. 20) with as many title cuts as Dallas? Salt Lake City's Jazz (ranked 36th) having been to more Finals over the last three decades than D.C.?

Which brings us to media market No. 37: San Antonio, Texas.

The Spurs are everything you say you want in a championship team. They are quiet and non-controversial, to the point of inducing sleep. They have no controversies in their locker room. They play a team game, though they have great one-on-one players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They don't preen or point, they play defense, they listen to their coach -- who is smart and crusty and profane and worldly. They play hard, are almost tattoo-free (Tim Duncan has a panther on his shoulder blade, I think) and their superstar, Duncan, took less money a few years ago so that the team could sign some other guys.

They have been in four Finals in the last 10 years.

Three of those were the lowest-rated of all time, in audience share, overall rating and average viewers.

"If we were in New York," Parker told me a couple of years ago, "they would love us."

So, why didn't you watch?

I'm not sure anyone did a poll, but anecdotally, you hear that the Spurs are (were?) "boring." No stars. No compelling personalities. No buzz.

Well, which is it? Do you want role models, or bad boys? If you can't stand Kobe, why do you keep watching him? And there's no question you do; the Lakers are the league's most popular team. People feel the Forum Blue and Gold. Which is probably why the Commish, for some reason, in the midst of perpetrating his massive fraud upon the public, said a few years ago that the ideal Finals matchup for the league would be "the Lakers vs. the Lakers." Now, I'm guessing he was kidding a little, but still, people remember things like that, which feeds the whole conspiracy beast.

Now, there's no question that Kobe and LeBron in the Finals would be good for business. That's why Nike's doing commercials featuring Kobe and LeBron puppets. It's why that vitamin water company has the whole "24 vs. 23" thing going, and why ESPN and NBA TV showed that special featuring the two of them. They are the two most popular guys in the game. But it's always been that way. The Playoffs are when the shoe companies and other high-end companies roll out the new ads featuring the game's superstars. They did it for Vince Carter; they did it for Tracy McGrady; they'll do it for Ricky Rubio or whoever the next flavor of the month is. Kevin Garnett didn't play a second in the Playoffs, but his new Gatorade spot has been in heavy rotation for weeks.

How, then, do the crazies explain away Orlando's 3-1 series lead over The Chosen One, and the Nuggets giving the Lakers all they can handle?

That's the best part about this nonsense. When it doesn't happen ... it's proof of an even-greater conspiracy!

The league doesn't really want the Cavs to make the Finals, see, 'cause that will cause LeBron to bolt Cleveland in 2010 ... for New York.

Pass the tinfoil.

Send your questions, comments and criticisms to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If we pick your e-mail, you'll star in the next Nike ad as your very own puppet! (Well, actually, that's not going to happen. But we will publish your e-mail.)

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