NBA

Would Radical NBA Schedule Change Hurt The League?

Nov 24, 2019, 3:04 PM | Updated: 3:05 pm
Adam Silver - NBA Commissioner...
NBA commissioner Adam Silver (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The NBA is mulling a set of rules changes that would drastically change the way the modern schedule looks. The changes would cause the regular season to more closely resemble European soccer. 

The changes, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, would aim to reduce the length of the NBA schedule, create better parity between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, and drum up interest in the pre-Christmas NBA schedule. 

The Changes

The first step for the NBA would be to reduce the length of the NBA regular season from 82 games to 78 games, ideally reducing the number of back to backs each NBA team has. Back to backs have often led the team’s instituting the controversial load management strategy — the practice of sitting star players in particularly burdensome back-to-back matchups to preserve their energy for playoff runs. 

The league averaged 12.4 back-to-back series per team this season, meaning over 30% of the league’s games are on the front, or back end of a back to back. Trimming the schedule by four games would allow the league to cut nearly one-third of those back to backs out of the schedule. 

The fight against dropping the number of regular season games has always come down to revenue. Team owners have argued against dropping four games worth of revenue from their bottom line, while players have been unwilling to sacrifice salaries as compromise. 

The league is hoping to combat that by making early season games better revenue earners, both on TV, and in ticket sales. 

In-Season Tournament

According to ESPN, league commissioner Adam Silver has long favored an in-season post Thanksgiving tournament featuring all 30 of the league’s teams. The tournament would begin with teams facing over inter-divisionally between the league’s six divisions, with the six divisional winners advancing to the tournament style single game elimination stage. Two wildcard teams would round out the eight team tournament. 

While the in-season tournament would have no playoff implications, players and coaches would earn extra compensation as they advance through the tournament. 

Undoubtedly, the league has seen the multi-billion dollar success of the NCAA’s March Madness tournament, and would like to channel some of its success into the NBA’s regular season. 

While many have argued the NBA should begin its season on Christmas day, and stretch its postseason into late summer when the only professional competition would be the dog-days of Major League Baseball, the league has appeared reticent to make such a drastic shift. A pre-Christmas tournament could bring additional eyes, and revenue to the overlooked early NBA schedule. 

Play-In Playoff Tournament

Additionally, and perhaps more impactful, the league is examining a set of play-in tournaments for the teams fighting to fill the NBA’s final playoff playoff spots in each conference. The league would have four team tournaments at season’s end for the team’s seeded 7-10 in each conference to decide who makes the postseason. 

In the NBA’s initial proposal, the seventh and eighth seeded teams would face one another to lock in the seventh seeded team. The ninth and tenth seeded teams would face one another, for a chance to face the loser of the seventh and eighth seeded teams, to fill the final playoff spot. 

This would expand the number of teams truly competing for a playoff spot, and perhaps more importantly, trim the number of teams tanking for better draft position after the All-Star break. 

Ahead of the 2019 NBA playoffs, the Sacramento Kings, who finished with the ninth best record in the Western Conference were eliminated from playoff contention in late March, more than two weeks before the regular season ended. The 10th seeded Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated a week and a half before that, meaning for true competitions sake, the Western Conference Playoff participants were decided nearly a month before the regular season ended.

While the gap between the 8th seeded Los Angeles Clippers and the ninth seeded Kings was a full nine games. The gap between the 10th seeded Lakers and the 14th seeded Dallas Mavericks was just six games.

Essentially, the play-in playoff tournament may keep the majority of teams in each conference in the hunt for a postseason berth, rather than strategizing for draft positioning in January. 

Playoff Reseeding

Finally, the league is exploring reseeding the four teams in the conference finals based on regular season record. If say the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors finished with the league’s two best records, as they did last season, reseeding the conference finals would prevent the two teams from facing one another in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Last season, in this scenario, the Bucks would have squared off against the Portland Trailblazers, while the Raptors would have faced the Golden State Warriors in a semi-final matchup. 

Positive Impact

The two changes that would have the greatest positive impact on the league are the reduction in regular season games, and play-in tournament to keep more team’s postseason hopes alive longer. 

Dropping the number of regular season games is long overdue, as the quality of play quite simply is lacking over an 82 game schedule. Over a sixth month schedule, four total games likely isn’t going to change the quality of the league dramatically, but ideally can trim the number of injuries the league has seen over the last several seasons. 

Keeping teams postseason hopes alive longer will likely have the greatest impact on the league both from a revenue standpoint, and a quality of play standpoint. 

As the league regathers post All-Star break, and post trade deadline, most teams in the league have decided whether their summer plans are to prepare for a playoff push, or to focus on developing their younger players while improving their draft stock. 

Understanding the financial windfall presented by making the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine many league owners choosing to skip a playoff chase if the wildcard tournament gives them a greater path to making the postseason. Additionally, it should increase interest in regular season games in March and April when playoff seeding is on the line. 

Negative Impact

While the league reducing the regular season by 78 games seems like a positive, whether it fully prevents teams from instituting a load management remains to be season. While it’s not unusual for a team to sit a player on the front or back end of a back-to-back, what’s to stop them from sitting those players now in a one off game?

If a team were to play three games over a seven day stretch, why not sit a star player in the middle game, and essentially give that player a full week off of games to prepare for the postseason? That opens the potential for fans to see the star players even more rarely than before, in addition to the fewer total games available to the fans. 

Along those lines, how big would the financial impact be for teams playing in the in-season knockout tournament? 

If winning the divisional round means you are committed to playing additional games, and potentially 83 total regular season games should you advance to the in-season tournament finale, and have to play in a postseason play-in game, how many players would prefer the bonus of winning those games versus the extra rest for not participating at all?

Would the league see its top teams purposely dropping games during the divisional round of the in-season tournament to avoid having to play three additional high stress knockout level games in December? In which case, would the casual sports fan the NBA is trying to attract with the tournament tune in to see mid and low-level teams face off in an ultimately meaningless tournament? It seems unlikely. 

Perhaps most damaging is the reseeding of the NBA semi-finals. 

While the idea of a more fair playoff system seems good at face value, is the league sacrificing what little rivalry play it has, only to punish its best teams?

Milwaukee and Toronto were the league’s two best Eastern Conference teams all season long last year, building up to a highly anticipated Eastern Conference Finals. While those two could have met in the Finals, it’s possible the Eastern Conference rivals never would have met had they faced an extra series hurdle to get there. 

The NBA needs as many high level rivalry series as possible in the postseason. As it’s said, familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt is good for competition. 

Rather than simply reseeding the semi-finals, the NBA should consider reseeding all 16 teams that make the postseason. A total reseed would eliminate any tired early postseason matchups, at least upping the likelihood of two teams having never faced one another in a postseason series meeting each other in the playoffs. 

Otherwise, eliminating the the Conference Finals, and the East versus West rivalry will likely only hurt fans. 

Overall

The NBA’s intentions are in the right place, and trimming the regular season down should be a major priority. If trimming four games off the season reduces the number of back-to-back series by 30%, it’s worth doing. 

Likewise with a play-in tournament at the seasons end. With the league’s current number of games, and discrepancy in talent, finding a way to keep more teams involved in the playoff chase should increase interest late in the season, which inturn should lead to better revenue. 

However, in-season tournaments and reseeding the Conference Finals may have unintended consequences that hurt the league’s product, rather than helping it. For now, the league should focus on shortening the schedule, while expanding playoff opportunities, and kick preemptive revenue stunts further down the road. 

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Would Radical NBA Schedule Change Hurt The League?