The NBA is good! In some ways is better than ever. But let’s be real, this recent resurgence is mostly being carried by star power, highlight reels and off-season drama. In so many structural ways the NBA actually sucks, which is why—along with falling ratings—the league has made some recent proposals to tweak the product.
They’re half-assed and boring, though, and in trying to create value for teams and copy certain aspects of European soccer they’re swinging wide on both. They also don’t go far enough to address the league’s biggest problem: the regular season is too damn long.
I’ve been thinking for a while of how far these changes should go, and/or what other stuff about the NBA should be altered, and after having them coalesce tonight while walking my dog, thought I’d get them down here on record.
TL;DR VERSION: 32 teams, abolish divisions and conferences, 62 regular season games, bad teams have a tournament for draft picks.
1) MORE TEAMS. Let’s expand the league to 32 teams. Get Seattle back in here and someone else, I dunno, maybe Mexico City. The growing popularity (and quality) of the game internationally can more than support another two teams, and at the rate new stars keep getting uncovered in Europe and the G-League it’s clear bad rosters are the result of bad management, not a shortage of talent.
2) 62 GAMES. The regular season as it stands is just too long. Fans lose interest (or never pick it up to begin with), and players are getting worn down. With 32 teams you can play each team in the league twice and still have the final number of games played be a reasonably healthy number. Owners and TV networks might not like this at first, but with creative scheduling and marketing of rivalries you could make less games feel more significant, increasing interest and thus ratings (especially if less superstars are getting injured).
3) LOSE THE DIVISIONS AND CONFERENCES. Inherent in playing each team in the league twice, which also creates a 100% fair schedule for all teams, is the idea that divisions and conferences be abolished. Divisions practically are already, nobody cares, but conferences need to go as well. The idea that teams need to play locally more often just doesn’t cut it in 2019 considering the comfort players travel in and the budgets teams have at their disposal. Plus with less games to play—cutting down to 62 can maybe even eliminate back-to-backs entirely—there’s time for longer road trips to cushion in a day or two either side of a game for r&r.
Again, some owners won’t like this (esp Eastern conference owners), but that’s tough. Moves like this are for the long-term viability of the league, not their short-term playoffs takings. With conferences gone you could simply rank every team in the league 1-32, with the top 16 teams making the playoffs.
4) LEAGUE-WIDE PLAYOFFS. With the entire league ranked against each other, the playoffs are more of an accurate reflection of the NBA as a whole. 1 would play 16, 2 would play 15, etc, and while the series at that end of the scale would be pretty lopsided, there’d be a lot more competitive series in the middle of the bracket as teams roughly even across the 60 games would make for some pretty good viewing (at least for the first round). The prospect of avoiding the mid-table meat-grinder this would produce would be a pretty good incentive for teams to try for the best possible regular season record.
5) FUTURE CUP. I hate the idea of playing into the play-offs. I also hate the idea of a mid-season tournament, because the only real joy of European soccer cups is seeing lower-division teams take on top flight clubs, which an all-NBA competition doesn’t have. Unless the NBA wants to pay for a massive tournament featuring G-League, European, Asian, Australian etc clubs (which would be amazing, but also unlikely), giving them a shot to beat the Knicks, I think a more interesting option is to make every team not making the playoffs enter their own losers tournament.
Only instead of framing it like that, you could entice people to give a shit with the one thing of true value in the modern NBA: draft picks. By either creating additional picks at the end of the first round and/or taking them away from the NBA champions/finalists, the winners (or even finalists) of a tournament featuring teams 17-32 could be awarded bonus first-round draft picks. Sure, it’s not as much fun as playing for the championship, but at least it’s a prize worth taking an interest in.
This wouldn’t replace the existing lottery or its rules, which would be left in place. These are bonus picks awarded for tournament play. You could argue this devalues the principles of the draft, but I think tanking teams have done more damage to the game than any bonus picks every would. The plus side of these extra picks would be that it’ll encourage teams in the lower half of the league to try a little harder, especially if you seeded it so that 17 would play 32, 18 would play 31, etc.
As for when this would take place, you couldn’t run it at the same time as the actual playoffs, so maybe having it take place right before the draft would work best. And before anyone says this would create an unfair workload on players, I’d see these playoffs being maybe best-of-3 at most, since nobody is going to care about these match-ups over 7 games. You could even get away with the first round being a one-off game, with the team with the superior standing getting home court.
I get that this draft picks are more important to fans and owners than players, many of whom aren’t going to be around for those picks to amount to anything, so to entice motivation all around I’d keep the current financial incentives for players the NBA has proposed for their shittier version of a tournament. The draft picks are just so the rest of us will care.
I dunno, this is an idea that I love in theory but can’t quite work out how to best implement, but I’ve put it in here anywhere because I like it in spirit.
6) ALL-STAR WEEKEND. If the NBA wants to copy stuff from European soccer so badly, make the all-star break a proper mid-season break. Give everyone two weeks off. That’s a good amount of time for players to get some rest, and even gives players involved in all-star festivities a chance to get a few days of it either side of the weekend. Use the extra time to hype up the all-star stuff in the week before it, and to hype up the run home in the league for the week after it.
As for the weekend itself, I like the current format of the game itself, though with conferences abolished I’d love it for two captains to just pick the best 30 players available, and to make the selections live. Keep the dunk contest as well, though potential changes to that are probably worth their own post. The 3-point contest can stay too.
I’d lose the rest of the weekend though. Nobody cares about the skills challenge or the rising stars game. Instead I think you’d get a lot more interest from a night dedicated to small ball 1v1/2v2/3v3 games, which could either be drawn from existing teams, NBA Jam-style, or just as cool, voted on by fans. Let some player beef (or dream match-ups) play out.
I’d also love to see a second game played on the weekend, replacing the rising stars, featuring veterans/masters. Retired players only. This is a huge and massively fun part of other sports, from soccer to tennis, and it’d be awesome seeing it over all-star weekend as a way to directly link the league’s past and present. Get guys like Kobe, Dirk, Tim Duncan etc out there, people would love it.
That’s it! Maybe these are good ideas, maybe they’re unworkable, but I liked ‘em enough to write them down, so maybe some of you will too.