Alright, let’s be honest. The NBA regular season was more entertaining than I expected with the Bucks taking a huge next step and the Nuggets coming out of nowhere. I definitely stand corrected on my initial take that the season was not worth watching.
That being said, there are still some major issues with the NBA regular season. It doesn’t really mean much. Between the 82 games and excessive number of playoff teams with 7 game series in the postseason, it really diminishes the value of performing well in the regular season.
Last year offers a clear example of this issue. The Rockets and Raptors earned one seeds in each conference. The Cavs entered as the 4 seed and still made it to the finals. It took 7-game series for Golden State and Cleveland in the conference finals, but the two best teams still made it through to the finals (well the two best teams that could, the Rockets and Warriors were the best two teams in the league overall).
In short, the regular season is too long. 82 games is unnecessary to determine who the best teams are. 16 teams is too many for the playoffs and history shows how little success those bottom seeds have in the postseason. The reason for the limited success is the format of a 7-game series in every round. Let’s fix that and set the league up to be even more entertaining in the future.
Cutting down regular season to 60 games
This has been a complaint for quite a long time. The NBA regular season is far too long to hold fans interest the whole way. There are highlights to the schedule, but 16 divisional games and 62 games in the conference. It is completely unnecessary to have that many matchups between conference foes is excessive. The solution is to cut down on the regular season. Before you call me crazy, this is very possible. Adam Silver is considering shortening the season and games.
82 is an arbitrary number. 60 might sound like another random number, but it actually works really well for scheduling purposes. With 30 teams in the NBA, each team will play two games against each of the other 29 teams (English Premier League style). That only adds up to 58 games, so then each team will play against the two teams that finished in the same divisional position as them in their conference, which is exactly what the NFL does.
What does this accomplish? This almost entirely eliminates strength of schedule, which doesn’t really have much use in the NBA. It is great to see in college basketball, but not needed in the pros. A 60-game schedule also creates more incentive to win every game.
Take a look in recent years at how many teams rest their top players (now frequently dubbed Load Management to avoid league fines). Just 7 players started all 82 games this season. That speaks volumes about the length of the season. Tons of teams chose to rest their stars players throughout the regular season to maximize effort and health in the playoffs. That also underlines the issues of general wear and tear NBA players deal with. Even if players are not resting, we see so many players missing games or strings of games due to minor injuries. Blake Griffin missed a win-and-in final game of the season due to knee soreness, likely due to overuse.
There is some evidence that shorter seasons might really help keep top players on the court for more games. The 2011-12 season was shortened to 66 games due to a lockout. 15 players started in all 66 games that season. That is not a huge uptick, especially looking at the next season, which had the same number of players starting every game in an 82-game season. You have to wonder though if the previous season being shorter, possibly reduced the overall wear and tear on players. In the 2013-14, the number of players dipped back down to just 12. It has continued to drop since then, bottoming out in the 2016-17 season when only five players started every game.
Go back further to the lockout season of 1998-99 and we start to see some significant differences. 39 players started all 50 games in that regular season. The following year, back to a 82-game slate, 27 players started every game. It went down to just 20 by the 2000-01 season. There is no denying this trend, and a shorter season is likely the best way to maximize the number of top players appearing in every game. The NBA is a star-driven league and the best version of the product is when more stars are on the court.
Reducing the number of playoff teams to 12
For some odd reason, the NBA has more than half the league reach the postseason. It really doesn’t make any sense. The lower-seeded teams almost never make a run to the Finals. It is rare for the bottom two seeds in each conference to even advance to the second round.
It has been seven years since a seven or eight-seed won a playoff series. Since the NBA moved to a seven-game series in the first round back in 2003, there have only been four times where the one or two seed failed to reach the second round. That means the higher seed in those series won 93.3 percent of the time. I get there is always a chance for an upset, but after watching Game 1 of the Bucks-Pistons series, I am pretty sure it isn’t worth it.
For a frame of reference, the NHL has the exact same set up, with 16 teams qualifying for the postseason, eight from each conference. They play seven games in each series. In the same time frame, the last 15 years, a bottom-two seed advanced to the next round 17 times (I considered the “wild cards” the NHL now uses 7 and 8 seeds.) Comparatively, NHL 7 and 8 seeds pulled off the upset 28.3 percent of the time, while NBA 7 and 8 seeds made it out of the first round just 6.6 percent of the time. NHL teams have a fighting chance. The NBA feels like a forgone conclusion.
With that in mind, it’s time to reformat the playoffs. Moving to a 12-team setup means the top-two seeds in each conference would receive a first-round bye. To avoid making that too much of a competitive advantage for the top-seeds, the first round should be cut to just three-game series once again. The NBA actually did this back before it expanded to 16 teams. The higher seed still has home-court advantage, hosting the first and third games. At most, this would give the top seeds a week off to get healthy, somewhat like the NFL giving it’s top two seeds in each conference a first-round bye.
This adds further incentive to the regular season, with earning a top-two seed now a priority for each team. It also would mean we trim the mediocre teams making the playoffs from the picture. Ideally, this should reduce the overall wear and tear on players as well.
Suddenly, the playoffs are much more competitive and intriguing from the start. A best-of-three series this season between the 76ers and Nets would be amazingly intense. As would Celtics-Pacers and Blazers-Thunder. The margin for error is shaved down immensely and provides an exciting introduction to the postseason, rather than the lackluster games we’ve seen so far (although that Raptors-Magic finish was pretty sweet).
After the initial three-game series, the ensuing rounds would all be best-of-seven affairs. Once we work our way down to the final 8 teams in the league, it is worth it to watch some extra basketball and see the drama unfold over a long series.
Change draft lottery odds
One of the biggest issues the NBA has had to fight is teams tanking in order to secure a better draft pick. The league has the draft lottery in place to limit the incentive to lose. It even made some tweaks recently to dissuade teams even further by giving the teams with the worst three records the same odds of landing the top pick.
However, under my proposed system, there would be 18 teams in the lottery as opposed to the previous 14. That is going to require different odds to land the top pick.
The new odds would be as follows:
3 worst records – 11 percent
4th-worst record – 9 percent
5th-worst record – 8 percent
6th-worst record – 7 percent
7th, 8th, 9th-worst record – 6 percent
10th-worst record – 5 percent
11th, 12th, 13th, 14th-worst record – 3 percent
15th, 16th, 17th, 18th-worst record – 2 percent
A new lottery system would hopefully increase parity in the league by reducing the temptation to tank. It could also lead to significant playoff turnover from year-to-year if teams who came close to qualifying for the playoffs land a top-tier college player. Imagine what the expectations would be for the Clippers if they added Zion or Ja Morant.
These new odds also increase the chance for the teams who just missed the playoffs to land the top pick. In this scenario, the Spurs, represented as the last team to miss the postseason cutoff, would have a two percent chance to land Zion Williamson. The Charlotte Hornets, who were actually the last team to miss the postseason this year, only have a 0.5 percent chance. It is small, but this change is significant. That’s the difference between having 200-1 odds and 50-1 odds.
It might be a little tricky then for the teams truly lacking talent to build their way back up, but it would require shrewd drafting and smart team building, overall increasing the competitive landscape of the league.
Obviously, these would be some drastic changes for the league to undertake all in one year. It would probably need to be spread out over time.
There are some obvious financial issues that would come up as well. Fewer games being played each season likely means less lucrative television contracts. However, producing a better night-to-night product could replace some of the value lost in terms of volume of games to sell. Additionally, Silver is rumored to be interested in adding some sort of midseason tournament as well, which could potentially offer another incentive for television deals.
The only thing that seems clear is that change is on the horizon for the NBA. Silver has proven to be one of the most open-minded and progressive commissioners in sports history, willing to push the envelope on what is accepted and use other sports as an inspiration for change. With the league looking to embrace the future, there is no doubt resetting the competitive format is the place to start.