According to the NBA, Kawhi Leonard’s knee is not healthy enough to play in back-to-back games, so the Los Angeles Clippers were not fined for resting the biggest free agent signing in franchise history for nationally-televised games in each of the last two weeks.
And then, the takes. Oh, the takes. Giannis Antetokounmpo voicing his desire to play as much as possible was fine and provided perspective. But then a secondhand Michael Jordan quote was invoked about how “you’re paid to play 82 games,” and an old Rex Chapman tweet with a video of players from the previous generation punching each other popped up, and talking heads got all wistful about how basketball was better then.
Here are the things that were better about the NBA in the 1990s than today: Roundball Rock, the Knicks, and the Toronto Raptors having dinosaurs on their uniforms. Well, we’ve gotten the dinosaurs back on throwback uniforms that five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry correctly called “sexy.” As for the rest, John Tesh’s masterpiece can now be heard on college broadcasts, while the Knicks… well… anyway, the NBA low-key sucked during the Jordan era.
With all of that said, it does make sense that the NBA wants its stars to appear in nationally-televised games, even if that does necessitate acknowledging that those games are more important. It also makes sense that fans who buy tickets would want to see the best players in action.
It also, however, makes sense that teams with championship aspirations want to keep players fresh. Even when Leonard’s knee is officially deemed healthy, the Clippers are going to rest him here and there. They don’t need him on the court every night to make the playoffs, and only playing 60 games with the Raptors last season seemed to work out okay for them and for Leonard.
Furthermore, the NBA regular season is too long. A suggestion for a 58-game campaign came from The Washington Post last year, noting that even commissioner Adam Silver has said he’s not married to the season being 82 games. The problem with a 58-game schedule (that number because it would be one home and road game against each team in the league), of course, is that going from 41 home games a year to 29 home games a year would represent a 29% decrease in the number of tickets that could be sold.
The answer, as hinted in the NBA.com article when Silver broached the topic of the schedule last spring, may be an in-season tournament along the lines of national cups in soccer.
Here’s one way it could work. In games scheduled mostly in the early part of the season, teams would play an 18-game round-robin – home-and-home with each division rival, home games against all the teams of one other in-conference division, road games against the other.
That gets you to 76 games, after which the tournament could progress to knockout stages that would be more interesting that typical midseason games, the kind of boost that might make up for losing a few regular-season dates. A home-and-home aggregate score round would be novel to basketball, or simply playing single-elimination games would be a change of pace for the NBA.
Why bother doing this if you wind up around the same amount of games? The idea would be for teams to prioritize the actual season, with tighter enforcement on “load management” for those contests. Doing so would not minimize the tournament, but instead would reward teams with rosters of young talent that doesn’t need as much rest, while also creating an atmosphere where there might be a legitimate underdog success story in the NBA, where no team has won the title with anything lower than the No. 3 seed in its conference since the 1995 Houston Rockets, who were sixth in the West but also defending league champions.
The only other time a team seeded lower than third won it all was the 1969 Celtics, also when they were defending champs, and only six times has a team won the NBA Finals as its conference’s No. 3 seed, most recently the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who had the same record as the Lakers that year but a lower seed based on a tiebreaker.
The NBA could use a little more of the good kind of drama than the pouting nostalgia kind of drama. It’s time to shake things up and start a tournament that would add life to one of sports’ dullest regular seasons while helping to tackle an issue that is quickly growing tiresome as a topic of discussion.