Three-fourths of an NBA season is enough; let's stop here
At the three-quarter mark of the NBA season, everyone is giving you their award picks and playoff predictions. I'd rather make the case that three-quarters of the NBA season is enough; we should stop here.
Ah, it's the time of year for everyone to take a deep breath, analyze all the awards races and handicap the remaining battles for playoff spots. With about three-fourths of the NBA regular season in the books, what better time to reflect on what's happened so far and opine about what's to come?
Unless you're like me, and you could not only do without the final quarter of the NBA regular season, but would rather schedule a mouthful of root canals than watch it unfold.
The fact is, there is too much NBA regular season. The final 20-25 games are a bore fest, and worse, they come at a time when the nation's eyes turn to college basketball. The incredible success of March Madness is proof alone that watching paint dry is more interesting than NBA regular season games in March. The NCAA has taken immature, unfinished "student athletes" (LOL) playing a game that barely resembles basketball and turned it into something that captivates a nation. Seriously, strip the NCAA tournament of its made-for-TV drama, its seedings and rankings and Cinderella stories, turn the volume down on your TV, and what do you have? Bad basketball.
If the world's foremost professional basketball league can't compete with that in March, it's time to re-evaluate things.
Among new commissioner Adam Silver's most interesting comments since taking office has been his expression of disappointment that college basketball fans have become "disaffected" from the NBA. Some of that is legit, and some of it isn't, but it's a fact nonetheless.
Most, if not all of the stereotypes about the NBA are false -- and I'm not just talking about the ham-handed Minnesota lawmaker and his Twitter buffoonery. For example, they don't play defense in the NBA ... really? You can't possibly watch the NBA or consume even a mouthful of the brilliant, fact-based content generated about it to hold such an opinion.
They don't run plays in the NBA, it's all one-on-one, isolation basketball ... really? Climb back into your time machine, crank up the Nirvana on your Sony Walkman and return to the '90s where you belong.
We haven't even gotten to the miserable part of the season when all or most of the contending teams -- not just the Spurs -- start resting their key players for the playoffs. I'm all for coaches doing what's best for their teams, but if the games aren't important to them, why should they be important to us?
At least one criticism of the NBA is well founded and accurate: the season is too long, and is often bereft of drama at the beginning and at the end. The league's various stakeholders and mouthpieces will try to force-feed us the drama of an MVP battle between LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but that's about all there is to write home about. I'd rather watch LeBron and Durant play one-on-one than sit through the Kings-Pistons game on Tuesday night -- or any other night.
What, you find the race to see which sub-.500 teams will make the playoffs in the East compelling? There's a reason the Knicks' pursuit of Phil Jackson for a front-office role was leaked -- because it's the only hope the Knicks have of being interesting over the next 20 games or so.
What passes for a compelling storyline over the final five weeks of the regular season is finding out how many Western Conference teams will miss the playoffs with better records than five playoff teams in the East. But conference imbalance and the need for top-to-bottom realignment are stories for another day.
One of the unintended benefits of the 2011 lockout was seeing that the sky didn't cave in when the NBA played a schedule reduced from 82 to 66 games. In many ways, a 20 percent shorter regular season in terms of the number of games was perfect. Every game, and every stretch of the season, had more urgency packed into it. Those final 16 games weren't needed to determine which 16 teams were deserving of advancing to the postseason; the only race that might've turned out differently with an 82-game schedule involved the final two spots in the West, where Dallas and Utah beat out Houston by two games and Phoenix by three. And with fewer games, there was more urgency.
The biggest problem with the lockout schedule was that it was compressed into too short a time period. The preponderance of back-to-backs, four-in-five-nights, and in some cases, back-to-back-to-backs subjected the players to too much wear-and-tear and made travel logistics a nightmare.
Another problem is statistical in nature; reducing the number of games would skew the record books. But NBA statistics have long been about averages rather than totals. We know what it means to average 30 points a game, and now, thanks to advanced metrics, we know what it means to perform at a certain level on a per-minute basis. But does anyone have a reference point for what 10,000 or 20,000 or 25,000 points really mean? It's not like baseball and the 500-home run club. I think the sport would survive.
The biggest obstacle to shortening and spreading out the NBA regular season is, you guessed it, money. By losing 20 percent of the season in 2011-12, the players and owners theoretically lost 20 percent of the revenue. As it turned out, though, by starting the season on Christmas Day, the league actually suffered only a 10 percent decline in revenue because it was able to negotiate keeping the full rights fees from its broadcast partners. Still, that was a one-time deal and 10 percent of what is now a $5 billion pie is nothing to sneeze at. The next broadcast and digital rights agreements are under negotiation now and will kick in with the 2016-17 season. What better time to discuss how best to package the product that the NBA is selling?
One of the best things about the early days of the Silver administration has been his level of openness to new ideas. He's said he's intrigued by the notion of a play-in tournament, which would be a compelling way to determine the final two spots in the 16-team postseason field -- a way that would give more teams incentive to compete to the very end and make the games worth watching.
At All-Star weekend, Silver also said he's heard from players about a desire for a longer mid-season break. Maybe it would stem the seemingly increasing tide of injuries in the league, and maybe it wouldn't. But both of these ideas would be possible if the NBA reduced the number of regular season games.
Maintaining a so-called balanced schedule would be a problem, too. But if reimagining the length of the regular season went hand-in-hand with a thoughtful, top-to-bottom evaluation of how divisions and conferences are structured, it might just work. The schedule is far from perfect as it is.
While we're at it, the NBA could fix a couple of other things that disrupt the selling of its product:
* The trade deadline should be before the All-Star Game, not immediately after. Every year, the storyline of which All-Star has played his last game with his current team ruins the league's showcase event. If the NBA were really proud of its product, it would want the focus to be on the game itself, not on the HoopsHype rumors page.
* If the trade deadline were closer to the actual midpoint of the season, there would be more trades. In conversations with executives about this year's dud of a deadline, several mentioned that contending teams have grown reluctant to mess with their chemistry two-thirds of the way into the season.
* The draft is too close to the end of the NBA Finals. Moving the draft back a couple of weeks, and pushing the start of free agency into mid-July, would give everyone a chance to breathe and let the culmination of the NBA season percolate a little more in the national sports consciousness.
All of these are just ideas, and they're not perfect. But I remind you of this story on the transition of power from David Stern to Silver, in which agent David Falk revealed a conversation he had with Stern on this very topic about 30 years ago.
Falk said that Stern envisioned ultimately having a 60-game regular season schedule on North American soil, with the games starting much later -- perhaps on Christmas Day. Then would come a reasonable break, followed by an entirely new season of games played all over the world. Again, the concept isn't perfect, but it would get early part of the NBA regular season out of the NFL's way, and would keep the sport relevant deep into the summer -- while truly tapping into its global appeal. Whatever revenues were lost without your garden variety Bobcats-Bucks games in November could be more than made up with real NBA games that counted in Europe, Asia and South America.
Again, it's not a perfect concept, and I'm far from smart enough to figure out how to pull it all together. But if you start with the premise that the NBA regular season is too long and not compelling enough, then you have the basis for rethinking things in an exciting way that goes beyond, "This is how we've always done things ..."
"I think it is my obligation and the obligation of the people at the league office, through any transition, to take a fresh look at everything we do," Silver said during All-Star weekend. "I would say I've been on a little bit of a listening campaign over the past several months. ... I've been around talking to our owners, getting their ideas, also general managers, coaches, fans. They come by email; they've come by members of the media. And so I'm excited about that. I think with any institution that you always need to take a fresh look."
I'll leave it to Silver to figure out how to fix this; that's his job, after all. But rather than give you my award choices and playoff predictions at the three-quarter mark of the season, I'll say that three-quarters of the season is enough. In the future, let's stop here.
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