The Knicks playing without music or video is the first step to saving the NBA

For the first half of today’s nationally televised home game against the Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors, the New York Knicks incorporated an interesting wrinkle:

Presenting the game without bells and whistles like music and video emphasizes the nostalgia-inducing sounds like the pounding of ball on hardwood and the squeak of cutting players’ sneakers. For an organization run by a trust fund nepotism case and a stoner who has somehow turned an outdated offensive system into a nonsensical life philosophy that lead to his engagement ending and his team being one of the worst in the league, it’s a surprisingly intelligent PR mini-risk, giving fans and the media something to talk about besides the team’s listless roster structure and play.

In general, the NBA’s in-arena experience has grown unwieldy and distracting. Fans are more likely to be distracted by showy organists and pre-taped video segments than intelligently observing and breaking down their favored squad’s defensive positioning or the percentage of available oomph a big man puts into setting a pick. Allowing the game to stand on its own honors the sport itself, and breeds a more observant and well-informed fan. The only issues with the Knicks’ moratorium on distractions are that they aren’t league-wide and they don’t go far enough. Here are some ideas to make the NBA product even better, and even more pure.

Large-scale expansion

The NBA has a representation issue. The league is one dominated by African-Americans and their showy feats of athleticism and tattoos. Expanding the league would allow for more spots for underrepresented Caucasians, a people known for fundamentals, like shooting and hard-fought but ultimately limited defense. More teams would also draw in fans in markets that currently don’t have a natural NBA rooting interest. In recent years, the league has invested too much in globalization, to the professional detriment of home-grown players; it’s time to start focusing that attention inward.

A bump from 30 teams to 200 would give everyone a relatively close by team to root on, provide jobs for more American-born players, and force teams to give more opportunities to players with whom the average fan can identify. A happy side-effect of this expansion: since less-skilled players would dilute the overall talent of the league, the game’s true lifeblood, defense, would be re-emphasized.

Intellectual growth requirement

Like it or not, professional basketball players are role models. They’re aspirational public figures to whom kids look up. This means that it would be preferable for players to be well-rounded people. By requiring players to pursue some form of intellectual growth, the league would ensure that the people kids look up to the most are worthy of that admiration. On top of that, it would prepare the players better for retirement, meaning that sad cases like Antwan Walker and Allen Iverson, who spent all the money they earned in their careers, would be able to continue working and earning.

This would be especially important because expanding to 200 teams would likely cause a large drop-off in average salary. If the league itself provided the means to continued development of off-court skills that would serve the players after retirement, they would make up (and in some cases exceed) the difference via the uptick in lifetime post-basketball earnings. An argument could be made that this intellectual growth requirement alone would be more worthwhile for players than the lavish salaries they earn now, and as such should replace them entirely.

Career term limits

Due to medical advancements and greater overall knowledge about nutrition and fitness throughout the league, players careers are growing longer and longer on average. LeBron James, for example, has played more minutes than any player in league history had at his age, with no major injuries and barely a sign of wear and tear or step-loss to this point. Tim Duncan was effective for the entirety of his 19 year NBA career; Dirk Nowitzki is in his 19th year and looking to play one or two more; Kobe Bryant played 20 seasons. What used to be an anomaly is now commonplace. This may be good for the league because it now has more good players concurrently, but it also robs the narratives of these players’ careers of a sense of urgency. If they don’t accomplish X this year, that’s fine, they’ll have 15 more.

That’s why the league should institute a a career term limit. Four years is good enough as a term length for the President of the United States, it should be good enough for the NBA. This would mean that every year of a player’s career is vitally important to his legacy as a whole. A side effect would be that players, looking to make the most of their 4 years, would stay in college longer and maybe play pro ball in Europe for a couple years until they are at the height of their physical and mental powers; the increase in the average player’s ability of this would help make up for the fact that the newly expanded league would be employing a large number of less talented players. Imagine, for example, if LeBron James’ last season as a member of the Heat was his last in the league. The stakes would be higher than Phil Jackson. It would be more compelling than the entirety of the rest of his career.

Elimination of the draft

The most un-American thing about American sports is that they all use an amateur draft to determine which young players suit up for which teams. It rewards organizational incompetence, which can in turn hurt the development of players who might otherwise become the league’s best, and it also spits in the face of the free market and free movement of labor. Instead, players and teams should be able to mutually choose each other based on things like tradition, available playing time, ability to compete at a high level, etc. That way, the players with the most long-term potential or the best win-now ability would be able to choose their own destiny, so long as the team they want to play for wants them.

This may be bad for competitive balance, but it’s worked for years in Europe and has helped make soccer the most popular sport in the world; meanwhile, basketball isn’t even the most popular sport in its entire country. In exchange for the ability to choose their own work environment, players would of course have to make concessions to the league. The easiest thing to do would be to give back some salary, which could lead to a more balance league-wide pay structure or even players competing for love of the game, the name on the front of the jersey, and the opportunities for lifelong personal gain afforded them by their teams via the above intellectual growth requirement. Talk about a pure basketball experience.

Implementation of a large single-elimination tournament to determine a champion

This is the boldest step, and probably the most necessary. The NBA’s current method of crowning a champion is a long and arduous one, requiring a team to win four four game series often stretching over two full months. The result: one of the three teams everyone thought would win the title going into the playoffs does, in fact, win the title. The NBA’s biggest problem is that it’s so predictable that almost individual every game becomes meaningless. Shortening the regular season so each games carries more weight and changing from the four game series format to a large single-elimination format solves that problem.

Over the course of every season, a couple teams get hot at different times and run off a streak of consecutive victories, including some over superior squads. A single elimination tournament lends itself to that sort of chaotic randomness actually mattering in the end. If the best team doesn’t always win, that means any team can win. It gives fans a reason to get invested and pay attention to the entire field of the tournament, or a reason to get emotionally invested in underdogs if their own team gets knocked out or doesn’t make the cut, and it’s over quickly enough that the causal or non-fan can get involved without making too much of a commitment. Introducing unpredictability would make the NBA worthy of the game of basketball.

An alternative to these changes would be to play every game on a sheet of frozen water, shrink the ball into a hard black cylinder, give every player a couple knives to move around on and a piece of wood or synthetic plaster, and let them actually get physical with each other. Maybe that would keep all the wimps out.

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