The 2017 NBA Finals boasted the highest television ratings (average viewership of 20.38 million) since Michael Jordan’s 6th championship in 1998. That’s the good news. The Warriors-Cavaliers trilogy brought eyes to the screen.
The bad news is that regular season viewership dipped nationally and fell even further locally. A combination of the Presidential election and a shift toward streaming services played a role, but the underlining message remains clear. The NBA season inspired little intrigue. The Warriors and Cavaliers’ combined 24-1 postseason cakewalk through their respective conferences made for tedious viewing.
The NBA has operated without parity since its inception, but there has rarely been a season with such an inescapable feeling of championship predestination. With that said, superteams can still be a good thing if the situation is right.
People tuned into the 2017 NBA Draft to give the event its highest recorded rating. Teams like the Thunder and Rockets made waves by going all-in during the offseason to close the gap on Golden State. Leagues benefit from having a Goliath to chase. The PGA inspired an entire generation of golfers during its peak-Tiger Woods years. The 80’s Lakers-Celtics rivalry helped save the NBA. Detractors can boo all they want – baseball is inherently better when both the Red Sox and Yankees field good teams.
The problem becomes the laughably top-heavy (and west-heavy) composition of the NBA. If someone tried to name five legitimate contenders to win the 2018 Finals, they’d already be stretching it. When other teams don’t even possess ammo worthy of David’s slingshot, fans get shorted.
Here is a brief, admittedly impossible wish list that would repair some of the imbalances and return meaning to the regular season:
Reduce the NBA’s team count from 30 to 20. Why do we need a 20-62 Nets team? Can’t keep up with Bobcats becoming Hornets, and Hornets becoming Pelicans? Combine them. Fans of the eradicated franchises would understandably decry the decision, and the business side of the NBA would never allow it, but so what?
Taking this drastic step reduces the dilution of the player pool. If you take the best three or four players from a basement dweller and add them to a team that’s stalled out as a 7th seed for several years, the depth and invigoration of substantial new talent provides a platform to challenge the upper echelons of the league. The new uber-competitive NBA from top to bottom generates higher quality matchups.
Shorten the Season
The basketball season runs so long that standalone, marquee games hold little value. The NBA’s Christmas lineup routinely pits the league’s best teams against each other. The next day, talking heads struggle to construct a believable message regarding what the results mean going forward. There’s simply too long of a road ahead.
Basketball does not have the same admiration for its records that other marathon sports like baseball do. Many fans don’t start paying attention regularly until the turn of the calendar year or the end of football. Opening the season a bit later seems logical.
With ten teams gone, fewer games are required. Shorten the regular season to 56 games. Reshuffle both conferences to make two groupings of ten. The schedule consists of 36 in-conference games (four per team) and 20 out of conference contests (two per team).
Removing almost 1/3 of the season raises the stakes. A 5-game losing streak suddenly takes on more weight. The lighter schedule reduces the need for back-to-backs and could potentially prolong careers of stars around the league. It also reduces the likelihood of teams resting their best players later in the season.
Reconfigure Playoff Format
The lack of competition in the 2017 NBA Playoffs did not pose the only issue. The length of the current format is ridiculous. As it played out, the postseason ran from April 15th to June 12th. The playoffs could have lasted until June 18th if the Warriors and Cavaliers went seven games. That’s eight weeks, otherwise known as 47% of an NFL regular season.
Our new playoff structure has eight teams total making the postseason (four from each conference). The first round returns to the best-of-five format utilized from 1984-2002. The Conference and NBA Finals retain their seven game status, which mimics the 5-7-7 structure used in baseball.
We could even experiment further by adopting a 4th seed/5th seed one-game playoff to open the postseason with a frantic March Madness atmosphere. Don’t like the randomness of a single game? Better acquire a top three seed. No games off.
The financial implication of scuttling ten NBA franchises renders these ideas completely void. The NBA Players’ Union wouldn’t exactly applaud putting players out of work either. If the league could be molded without restriction, however, this approach would foster better competition amongst much deeper teams. Cutting down franchises and playoff slots means an organization’s day one postseason chances drop from 53.3% to 40%. The season becomes a relentless sprint, and the playoff format matches that intensity. One can only dream.
While we’re at it, let’s reinstitute hard fouls, eliminate flopping, and start calling traveling violations again. LeBron James probably ran a marathon last year just counting his extra steps.
If you have any other wacky NBA alterations or tweaks to those provided, feel free to comment below. You can also follow FFF on Twitter and Facebook.
Header Photo: Sporting News