Stepping Up: Breaking down what’s become the NBA’s regular season problem

Published 10:26 pm Friday, April 14, 2017

Close your eyes and visualize the average physical specimen in each of the four major American sports today — MLB, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL.

Okay, now open.

Of the four men you’ve recreated, who do you consider to be the most physically athletic? I bet it’s the 6-foot-7, 230-pound behemoth that looks like he could compete at any sport thrown his way.

Sure, you can make an argument that hockey requires the most consistent energy exertion, football the most toughness and baseball the most attention to detail in terms of keeping your body fit for the 162-game haul.

But basketball, where the ratio of energy required to minutes played has become so skewed — catalyzed by the excess of newfound elite talent — the entertainment value has suffered. Even baseball, where the slate of regular season games is taxing to say the least, it’s still relatively engaging to the fan. Over the last decade-plus, the NBA’s once entertaining 82-game regular season has, at some points literally, dropped the ball. Expended energy, strain on joints, even the occasional broken bone — the fight to stay on the court during the regular season, in some respects, has all but equaled, if not topped the mission to defeat the opposing team.

The once gritty Bill Laimbeer-style, hit-you-in-the-mouth defense has transformed into a full-court-press-less, perimeter-passing, transition-lacking (Golden State aside) mockery, one that unarguably houses some of the best young, pure athletes ever to don sleeveless jerseys — Giannis Antetokunmpo, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, etc.

So if star quality and seemingly endless narratives that keep ESPN salivating like a Rottweiler staring down a ribeye aren’t the problem, what is?

The level of pure physical talent has increased, like in most professional leagues over the last 20 years, but how has basketball adapted? Well, you can argue it hasn’t or not well.

While many of the major professional sports leagues in the US and around the world have toyed with their schedule, it’s been well over half a century since basketball has veered from the 82-game slate.

You read that right, half a century.

Luckily for the NBA, its viewership continues to increase, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of play has as well. There is no positive correlation.

Rather, it’s become a potentially toxic combination of sickeningly top-heavy conferences and a slow-paced product that, at times, can make an AAU game watchable. Feel-good team stories have went by the wayside, major playoff upsets are all but nonexistent and, let’s be honest, we all have a pretty good idea who’s going to end up in the finals. And if we’re not exactly sure, then we can certainly pick from a pool of about three teams — say, Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland.

In fact, the regular season has become such an abomination that the “King” himself, Mr. Lebron James, has all but deemed it pointless (thus the Cavs’ effortless and defenseless end to the season, resulting in a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference). They still made the playoffs, they will still more than likely outwit Boston and Toronto and James will find himself, once again, fighting for a championship. Pencil it in, Vegas.

So how do we make the regular season more meaningful and entertaining? It’s a question that should be left up to the front office professionals, but the league can start by shortening the season, and shortening it significantly.

By dropping it to, say, 62 games, the NBA would cut down on the perennial end-of-the-season wear and tear, injuries its star players seem to endure every season, while also making each individual game more meaningful. Drop it down to 52 and not only would attendance at each game increase, but individual game TV viewership as well. Less games means less injuries and better competition. Players would be more likely to play tougher defense, more likely to leave it all out on the floor.

More games also means there’s less of a chance of an underdog (but somewhat talented) squad sneaking into the playoffs in the future — say a Phoenix or a Minnesota (a team that currently holds the longest playoff drought at 12 years).

There would be obvious downsides to this move. Single-season records — like Wilt Chamberlain’s 4,029 points in a season — that relied on that 82-game schedule to crest would become difficult, if not impossible to top. And while TV viewership for individual games would increase with a 62 or 52 game schedule, it’s impossible to predict whether or not it would equal out or top the 82-game slate overall.

What’s more difficult to change, however, is the predictability of the league. Right now as it stands, there’s about four or five teams that arguably have a shot at a championship. A decade or two ago, that was hardly the case. The game has changed significantly, where the dynamic duos of the 90s gave way to the “big threes” of the early 2000s, which eventually gave way to the super teams of today. Less distribution of talent means less competition.

It’s not a perfect solution by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a start. After all, the world of sports has come a long way in half a century.