How To Fix The NBA’s Urgency Problem

The NBA hasn’t had this much talent since the early 1990s. Right now, it’s not just LeBron or Steph Curry. It’s Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porziņģis and James Harden, amongst others, all playing at an absurdly high level not seen since the halcyon days of Jordan and Pippen. Right now, you could turn on an NBA game, and any NBA team almost any night of the week, and see a wildly entertaining game featuring some of the best shooters and some of the best athletes the game of basketball has ever seen. The game has never been more free-wheeling or fun to watch since Bird and Magic were dominating the Association.

But it doesn’t really matter. The NBA Finals are all but decided. Baring major injury, the NBA Finals will feature Golden State and Cleveland for the third straight year. This isn’t necessarily a huge problem for the Finals or ABC. But it’s a huge problem for an expanding league that has a ton of talent that the casual fan may never get to see. It’s an even bigger problem for fans of the vast majority of people who root for someone other than Golden State or Cleveland.

Put simply, the season is longer than War and Peace and more top-heavy than Scarlett Johansson. The Warriors and the Cavaliers have six of the NBA’s 12 best players (Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant for Golden State; LeBron and Kyrie Irving for Cleveland), and they play in a league that values resting guys because their season starts before Halloween and doesn’t end until around Father’s Day.

The NBA season starts about the time the World Series is finishing up, and the NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape. Baseball Opening Day is practically a national holiday. The start of college football actually coincides with a national holiday. Even college hoops gets going with Midnight Madness and traditionally some fantastic early season match-ups taking place in Hawaii, Alaska or on aircraft carriers.

The NBA, though? Outside of Bill Simmons and a few other basketball junkies, does anyone really care all that much? Furthermore, knowing how seemingly pre-determined the league is, why would fans of any other team really tune in, buy tickets and keep track of their team if they don’t even have a puncher’s chance of making it to the Finals? Remember that even when Michael Jordan was dominating with the Bulls, he always had challengers. It was first Isiah Thomas and the Pistons. Later, it was Magic and the Lakers. Soon after it was Clyde Drexler and Portland, Charles Barkley with Phoenix. To a certain extent, he had Hakeem and the Rockets during Jordan’s sabbatical. Jordan vanquished Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp with Seattle, and finally Stockton/Malone and the Jazz to end his career with Chicago. Even Reggie Miller’s Pacers pushed Jordan’s Bulls in Jordan’s last Chicago season.

Although Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won six championships, they always had challengers. That’s the key difference between then and now. Who’s challenging Cleveland in the East? Toronto doesn’t quite have enough. The Celtics are still way too young. Who’s challenging Golden State in the West? Maybe San Antonio. That’s about it, though. Almost every team has a great player, but none of them are as concentrated as Cleveland and Golden State.

What’s happened as a result is that the NBA is basically now a three-month league starting in April. The rest of the time is trade rumor innuendo, gossip rag nonsense, and filler during the downtime between the college football championship, the Super Bowl and the start of the NCAA tournament. And that’s terrible because, in many ways, the league has never been in a better place. They have likable young stars, an eye-pleasing product, and an obscene collection of talent. They seem to genuinely care about social issues. They rid themselves of a racist stain of an owner.

What the NBA has is really an urgency issue. It’s what makes college basketball and the NFL so great, and it’s what the NBA sorely lacks. But they can generate it by revamping their product in some rather unique and progressive ways.

  1. Don’t start the season until after the college football conference championships.

Put simply, the NBA opening day doesn’t have anywhere near the same buzz that baseball or football’s opening days have. They open up during the World Series. They’re overlooked by Halloween, college football and the NFL. They invariably get lost in the shuffle. Why not carve out a spot when more people might be prone to pay attention?

College football starts Labor Day weekend. Baseball opening day gets a perfect lead-in by starting right after the Final Four. The NBA could potentially follow the lead of baseball, and follow a seamless transition from one major event to another by way of the all the college football championships. Instead of burying the lead on a random Tuesday or Wednesday during the World Series, why not just start the Tuesday after the college football championships? They wouldn’t have to compete with football, and get all the attention to themselves to properly hype the games and market their best players.

Furthermore, the NBA suffers from what I’ll call the “Classic Rock Radio Problem.” Corporate classic rock stations constantly play Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Eagles so often it’s actually to their own detriment. Surveys often reveal that people really like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Eagles, so programming directors often play them to death assuming that’s what the public wants to hear. In reality, people loves these acts. To a point. Once people hear the same acts, and the same songs over and over again, people tune out and move to something else.

The NBA has a similar problem. They don’t ever go away. They don’t really have an offseason. They have a sabbatical. It’s nowhere near enough time to digest the season that was, and move to the season that is to come. Which is why they really should…

2. Chop ten games from the schedule

I know this messes with certain historical markers like the 1996 Bulls or the 2016 Warriors. But one of the biggest issues the league has now is that teams are (wisely) resting their best players during the season. This means less urgency to win games as franchises are implicitly acknowledging the greater concern is making the playoffs, not winning the game in front of them on that particular night. This means fans are paying top dollar to see teams not suit up their best players. This means casual fans at home are more likely to turn off the product if they don’t see familiar faces and a competitive contest.

Going to a 72-game regular season improves the product in a few ways. First, it makes the games more meaningful. Removing ten games from the schedule gives teams less margin for error to make the playoffs. This gives teams more incentive to suit up their best players, and creates a more fan-friendly game in the process. As a result, it makes the games more valuable, not less. This is a potentially radical idea for both owners and players alike unwilling to sacrifice a portion of income. Purging ten games from the schedule means players will be fresher due to less wear and tear throughout the season. Fresher players playing regularly equals a better overall product.

Less is more in this instance. It’s one of the reasons why the NFL is actually lagging lately. They’re overexposed, playing bad Thursday games, all day Sundays and on Mondays too. The NFL is the pig-ignorant program director playing Dark Side of the Moon and Stairway to Heaven thinking that since everyone loves football, we need more football. What they found is the people love it to a point. Then it becomes overexposed, and people tune out. The NBA has the potential to surprise people by proving that by playing less, they create more value.

3. Shorten the playoff series

Here’s where this gets really interesting, and creates the greatest sense of urgency for the NBA. Make the first round a best-of-three series. Then the semi-finals a best-of-five. Make only the conference series and the NBA Finals a best-of-seven series.

The genius of March Madness is the sense of urgency. A group of kids knowing that this might be the last major game they ever play in their lives are playing their guts out, diving on the floor, and crying at press conferences if they lose. The season is over in an instant if a break doesn’t go right or if a shot falls short. That’s what makes the NCAA tournament so compelling.

Meanwhile, the NBA playoffs frequently subjects us to horrible match-ups that drag on interminably. A classic example is the 2015 Cleveland-Boston first round series. LeBron’s Cavaliers were the one seed; a young Celtics team the eight. Boston never stood a chance in that series losing by an average of over nine points a game. They were swept in four games. Truthfully though, that series never needed to be that long. The Celtics were overmatched from the beginning. The only thing that was accomplished was stringing along the Celtics’ inevitable defeat.

Shortening the playoff series, especially the first round series, accomplishes two important things. First, it puts the favorites on notice that they can’t slack off in the playoffs. Using the 2015 Celtics as an example, they knew they couldn’t beat the Cavaliers four times out of seven. But could they beat them two times? It’s unlikely, but it’s certainly possible that they could. Shortening the playoffs gives the underdog teams a better opportunity to succeed in the playoffs, at least in the short term. Creating parity by way of urgency is great for the league because it allows all the league’s top players to be showcased, not just the same ones repeatedly. It also allows other fan bases hope that their team can make a championship run, not just a select few.

Secondly, shortening the playoffs disposes of bad match-ups quickly. Another beautiful aspect of the NCAA tournament is the fact that even if one game is a clunker, they never go back and play it again. The world doesn’t need to see a sixteen-seed lose to a one-seed twice or three times even. It happens once, the sixteen-seed gets their butt kicked, and everyone moves on with their lives. Not to pick on the 2015 Celtics again, but no one really needed to see the Celtics lose four times for everyone to know that the Cavaliers were the superior squad. Twice would suffice in that instance.

And if the teams are evenly matched in a three-game series? Think about how incredibly exciting each game would be? Each game would take all the drama of the NCAA tournament, and cross it with the talent of the NBA. Casual fans would be more inclined to tune it to those games, not just the conference or NBA Finals.

The NBA has become a wildly entertaining, progressive league with the best talent it has seen in years. But if they don’t fix the urgency issues surrounding the game, this growth they’re experiencing may go the way of the NFL.

Yes, still very popular. But fleeting. And the talent won’t always be there to rescue it.