AP Basketball Writer
The NBA and many of its owners have long been in search of greater parity to thwart one of the enduring criticisms of the league's playoffs -- that the outcome is too predictable.
That the kind of suspense that makes March Madness so compelling, and the kind of hope that gives fan bases across the NFL the belief that their team has a chance to win it all, doesn't exist in the NBA.
During the league's lockout of the players in 2011, then-Commissioner David Stern and several high profile owners expressed a need for changes to the collective bargaining agreement to level the playing field between markets big and small.
During a wild and crazy opening round, it appears that the league is closer to achieving that goal. Top-seeded Indiana is getting a huge challenge from Atlanta, a team that entered the playoffs with a losing record. Oklahoma City is knotted 2-2 with Memphis; Houston is down 3-1 against Portland; and even the San Antonio Spurs have their hands full with eighth-seeded Dallas out West.
"You see some of these teams that have the higher seed that have home-court advantage losing games," NBA TV analyst Grant Hill said. "I'm not sure that we've ever seen that many losing at one time."
The favorites went 7-9 in the first 16 games of the playoffs, the worst record since the league went to the seven-game series format in 2003. The games have been exciting, tightly played and anything but predictable, with both conferences appearing to be as wide open as they have been in years.
But that could come at a price. Some of the league's most established stars and biggest brands are in trouble early in their series. For a star-driven league, the prospects of not having players such as Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard -- the stars that the casual fan tunes in to see this time of year -- or of not getting a heavyweight Indiana-Miami Eastern Conference finals that everyone has been salivating over for the entire season could be cause for concern.
Add in that these playoffs already are missing three of the league's most recognizable franchises -- the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics -- and that may not bode well for television ratings.
"Obviously if you had some of the big names going far, that's ideal," Hill said. "Those are who the fans know and the casual fan knows and recognizes."
There is plenty of time for the Pacers, Thunder, Spurs and Chicago Bulls, another of the league's marquee franchises, to turn things around.
But their absences would open the door for a fresh-faced crop of players that fans don't see on national television every week to show what they can do.
John Wall and Bradley Beal have formed a young, dynamic backcourt with the Washington Wizards, a franchise that has toiled in obscurity. The Wizards missed the playoffs for five straight years before getting in this season as a No. 5 seed and winning the first two games in Chicago.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been one of the best power forwards in the league for most of his eight-year career. But he has enjoyed little postseason success and plays in Portland, where games tip off after most of the East Coast has hit the sack. Then he scored 89 points in the first two games of the series against Houston to grab everyone's attention.
"Professional athletes have grown up for these moments," said coach Terry Stotts, whose Blazers were up 3-1 on Howard, James Harden and the Rockets. "Frankly, we're just in the first round, so hopefully there's a lot more of those moments ahead of us. To play on a national stage, everybody wants that. "
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are also getting to soak up some of the spotlight after the Toronto Raptors were virtually ignored on the national television schedule all season.
"Stars are made in the postseason," Hill said. "If by chance a star or two doesn't make it far, there's other stars that can and will emerge."
That's what happened for Steph Curry last year. Sure, he was well known for the run he had with Davidson in the NCAA tournament. He shot the lights out early in his career for Golden State. But it wasn't until he helped the Warriors upset Denver in the first round of the playoffs that the public at-large really took notice.
"He had been doing it all season, but he took his game up a little bit, played great and everybody fell in love with him," Hill said. "So that's a perfect example of someone who took advantage of the opportunity and was able to emerge on a global scale because of his performance in the postseason."
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