For many years fans, media members and players have complained about the NBA’s regular season. They aren’t wrong, there is a laundry list of issues. The most common criticism is aimed at the length of the season, but that only provides a good starting point. A more fundamental change is necessary. Most people agree that 82 games is too many. The NBA expanded to an 82 game regular season before the 1967-68 season because the league expanded to 12 teams. The League is now comprised of 30 teams and change appears to be imminent.
An 82 game regular season no longer seems tenable. Fans have started to turn away from the regular season, choosing instead to just watch the playoffs or marque matchups. The prevalence of tanking and load management has also served to turn fans away. What’s the point of watching your favorite team if the front office intentionally puts a losing product on the floor? Another negative is the emergence and wide acceptance of “load management.” Many teams have determined it’s not worth grinding a player into the ground for the sake of the regular season, only to run out of gas in the playoffs. This is especially true for teams with championship aspirations. These teams point to the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard to validate the method.
Load management boils down to scheduled rest, with every player being unique. Several players including Al Horford and Russell Westbrook have already registered a “DNP – Rest” this season. The science behind load management remains a bit murky, with many teams choosing to rely on their in-house science instead of outside consultation. Teams are also concerned with being perceived as anti load management. They worry being perceived this way could deter potential free agents because the player may view the team as not having their best interests in mind. The debate over load management largely ignores the root of the problem, the 82 game regular season. Faced with mounting criticism and a significant decline in ratings, the NBA has finally proposed an overhaul to the regular season.
The NBA’s Plan
The proposal the NBA has put forth revolves around four major changes. The first tweak would be to reduce the regular season from 82 to 78 games. This will provide the League with more scheduling flexibility which is necessary to implement the other changes. Next, the NBA’s proposal calls for the reseeding of the four conference finalist teams based on regular season record. The rationale behind this change is to get the best two teams playing for the championship. Many leagues already engage in reseeding. For example, the WNBA already seeds playoff teams without regard to their conference.
Next, the proposal calls for a 30-team-in-season tournament. This is an idea borrowed from European Soccer that is designed to provide a spark to the regular season. The details of the proposed tournament are a bit murky. But it seems there will be a divisional group stage followed by a single-elimination knockout tournament. The NBA would like this tournament to take place between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The NBA believes this time frame would be a sweet spot of sorts because it avoids the NFL and college football playoffs. To motivate players, the winner of the tournament would receive a cash prize.
The NBA’s proposal also calls for a postseason play-in tournament. Each conference (East and West) would host a four-team tournament to determine the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eight seed, the winner of that game earns the seven seed. The loser of that game would then play the winner of the nine seed and ten seed game to determine who gets the eight seed.
Obstacles to Implementation
Adam Silver and the NBA have been trying for years to change the regular season. Unfortunately, they must clear many obstacles before their plan can take effect. One roadblock that may present itself are individual teams looking out for their best interest. If the current format favors a certain team or group of teams it seems unlikely they’d favor something to reduce that advantage. The players themselves may prefer the current format over the new proposal. Or they may be in favor of neither because the total amount of regular season games is not reduced. The league thinks it can combat this issue by incentivizing the players with money. It remains to be seen if that strategy will work. The owners may prove difficult as well if any plan threatens the bottom line. The biggest reason NBA owners are so hesitant to move away from the 82 game season is because of lost revenue. Even losing just a few home games would hurt several franchises. Adam Silver has been arguing behind the scenes that these changes would prove lucrative in the long run. Perhaps that will be enough to convince the owners.
The biggest obstacle yet may be the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and its executive director, Michele Roberts. The League and the NBPA have been engaged in talks and those discussions remain ongoing. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the changes must be agreed upon by the both the League and Union. Fortunately, it seems clear that both the League and union see the apparent need for change. However, the NBPA will not rollover for the NBA. They have already struck down several ideas as being non-starters. One sticking point for the NBPA is that they will not support the shortening of the player’s All-Star Break to accommodate a schedule change. So far, the two sides appear to be making progress towards a resolution. A vote on the final proposal could happen as soon as April at the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting. Once passed, the proposal would go to the Players Association for a vote. If it passes there, then the new changes could be implemented as soon as the 2020-2021 season.