Seven suggestions to help make the professional game even greater.

7 Quick and Dirty Ways to Improve the NBA

April 15, 2014 / by / 151 Comments

Heading into the first postseason of the Adam Silver era, the NBA is thriving. TV ratings have done nothing but rise since 2007, while the league’s cadre of superstars, up-and-coming players, and compelling narratives all give the NBA the cultural cache necessary to arguably make the association the second most relevant professional sports league in the United States. The NBA may not have the revenue of the MLB or even the attendance figures of the NHL (due in no small part to the interrelated dynamics of race, class, and age that affect those numbers), but its openness to both the casual fan and the hardcore junkie has helped the league develop a worldwide, youthful fan base that truly cares about this exciting, beautiful game.

But with the regular season almost over, the NBA clearly has areas for potential improvement. Tanking is rampant, the regular and post-season are way too long for player health or fan interest, and somebody still allows this man to dress himself. The following are seven suggestions to help make the professional game even greater:

7. Shorten the game

Professional basketball games should not last three hours. Part of the game’s elegance comes from its streamlined and fast-paced flow and beauty. The solution? Reduce NBA game-length from 48 minutes to 40.

Reducing the length of NBA games should logically make each individual game played more unpredictable, and therefore more exciting for fans to watch. The favored team currently does better in an NBA game than similarly favored teams perform in pretty much every other sport, but a reduction in the time period of a game would help improve the odds of an underdog winning, or at least keeping it close enough to keep viewers from changing to another channel. The reduction of minutes creates the potential for more competitive and intriguing games while possibly enhancing player health and fan viewership, all while discouraging tanking because of the increased likelihood that a weaker team can pull off a greater number of upset victories against favored lineups. Do you really think that LeBron is going to be accused of coasting through the middle of the season when the chances of getting upset by the Bucks are that much greater?

Sure, stats would be affected, making it even more difficult to compare players historically, and scoring levels would drop to WNBA levels. But would you rather watch a Wizards-Bobcats game grind out for nearly 280 minutes, or cut the game-length by 17% and watch regular season and playoff games that rival the NCAA in terms of excitement and unpredictability? While ad revenues might decrease initially due to the reduction of advertising spaces available per game, if the NBA wants to seriously compete with the NFL in terms of popularity and watchability, it needs to make its games more exciting and more uncertain and more awesome. Putting, say, Steph Curry’s Golden State team (and crowd) into a situation where literally anything could happen makes me, and thousands of others, automatically want to watch that game.

6. Reduce the schedule from 82 to 80 games.

Reducing the NBA schedule goes hand-in-hand with shortening game length. The NBA season is just too long. Teams start mailing it in, fans lose interest, and Derrick Rose’s limbs are reduced to the structural stability of K’NEX. Slashing game-lengths should already help improve competitiveness, fan interest, and player health, but 82 regular season games is just an absurd amount to play, in no small part because it’s difficult to do math with.

Let’s reduce the regular season down to an easily-divisible 80 games, bring first-round playoff games back to the best-of-five format, and reduce the preseason from a ludicrous 116 games to a round robin tournament in Vegas that lets players bet on their own team. Sorry to interrupt, but TNT is on the line and wants to shower the league with hundred dollar bills and Drake courtside appearances.

5. Introduce more drama

Adam Silver’s first move as acting commissioner should have been to convince Birdman to sleep with LeBron’s mother. Can you imagine the resulting brouhaha as ESPN talking heads and Knicks bloggers collectively lost their minds in the ensuing LeBron sweepstakes as he angrily storms out of yet another team? Also, let’s agree that at least 20 games a season will be thrown by a referee just for the hell of it, players should be allowed to tweet from the bench, and that Gregg Popovich gets to summarily execute at least one (1) beat reporter during a postgame press conference every month or so.

4. Conference Realignment

First, we’ll blow up the division system. Divisions are useless in the NBA, unless you’re a fan who just can’t get enough Timberwolves-Jazz action. It makes absolutely zero geographical sense for Portland to be in the same Northwest division as Oklahoma City, and it’s just not fair for, say, Toronto to kick the ever-living shit out of Philadelphia four times a season.

Second, we’ll realign the conferences, but only slightly. Let’s move Milwaukee to Seattle so that a fan base who actually cares about basketball gets one, and then shift Memphis to the Eastern Conference so that all the Eastern Conference teams are definitively east of the Mississippi and all the Western Conference teams are west of the river.1 These shifts will slightly re-jigger the competitive balance between the two conferences, and at least would mean that Phoenix wouldn’t have been screwed out of a playoff berth this year.

3. Improve Scheduling

Now that we have better conferences, the smoldering remains of the Southeast Division buried in Gilbert Arenas’ yard, more exciting/unpredictable games, and an 80-game schedule, it’s time to talk scheduling.

The NBA’s scheduling currently follows this formula governing which opponents each team has to play:

  • 4 games against the other 4 division opponents, [4×4=16 games]
  • 4 games against 6 (out-of-division) conference opponents, [4×6=24 games]
  • 3 games against the remaining 4 conference teams, [3×4=12 games]2
  • 2 games against teams in the opposing conference. [2×15=30 games]

Under my fiat, the 80-game schedule will entail that each team has to play:

  • 3 games against 14 conference opponents, alternating each season which team gets to play two home games in the series, [3×14=42 games]
  • 2 games against teams in the opposing conference, [2×15=30 games]
  • 8 games scheduled according to last year’s standings. Similar to the NFL, the NBA would have to devise a system so that the top teams play each other more frequently (regardless of their conference), and lower-performing teams receive a slightly easier schedule by facing other teams that had similarly weak performances in the prior year.

The benefits of this scheduling are threefold: First, the system places less focus on inter-conference scheduling, so that teams within a dominant conference spend less time beating up on one another and teams in a weaker conference are challenged more. This process leads to the second benefit of the scheduling system–teams who make the playoffs are more likely to deserve their spot, because the league has played a more equitable schedule. Speaking of the playoffs, it also opens up the door for the possibility of re-seeding all 16 playoff teams into a bracket, since every playoff team will have competed against a wider distribution of talent across both conferences throughout the regular season. Last, the schedule can offset lost TV revenue from reduced game and season length by increasing the amount of marquee games played between top teams, while also helping to boost interest in weaker teams who have a greater chance for upward mobility thanks to their easier schedule (not to mention the aforementioned greater likelihood of weaker teams having a puncher’s chance on a game-to-game basis thanks to the 40-minute game-length).

2. Three words: Space Jam II

I mean seriously, how has this not been made like five years ago already?

1. Promotion and Relegation

Even if it’s never going to happen, the idea of introducing a model of promotion and relegation based on the English Premiere League system of transferring weak teams to a lower division of play and moving high-performing teams up to the big leagues is a fun thought experiment to bandy about. Such a system would punish both the horrific mismanagement of people like James Dolan and the explicit tanking of teams vying for draft picks, all while making the end of the regular season entertaining as all hell for fans of every team involved.

This system could be accomplished in two possible ways: First, by dividing the current 30-team NBA league into two 15-team divisions–an upper and a lower level–and transferring teams between the two according to their performance each season. The NBA is already essentially a league divided between competitive teams and non-competitive teams, so why not make it official? Rather than a gargantuan 16-team playoff system, the upper division could have an 8- or 12-team (a la the NFL) playoff structure to determine a champion while the two lowest finishers are relegated, and meanwhile the lower division could promote its two top performers according to the winner and loser of a single-elimination tournament. Sure, it would do away with all the hard work we just did realigning conferences, and the NBA draft would have to be completely reinvented, but to hell with it. We’re revolutionaries. We have little time for such trifling matters.

Second, rather than divvying up the pre-existing NBA, the league could instantly transform the D-League into a relevant minor league by offering the chance for its best teams to win promotion to the NBA. Or if the D-League isn’t yet up to snuff, we can always just promote a Calipari team from the NCAA to the Eastern Conference and laugh hysterically when his squad of 18-year-olds wins the 6th seed.

We already know that the size of a city’s TV market isn’t necessarily correlated to a team’s performance, so let’s take that to its logical conclusion and give the Fort Wayne Mad Ants a fighting chance. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t want the opportunity to rob Charlotte of an NBA franchise for the second time in 15 years, or that you wouldn’t tune in to see Kobe return at the end of the regular season to help the Lakers stave off being relegated and replaced by the Sioux Falls Skyforce. I’m already writing up a script, tentatively titled Take Charge, featuring Michael B. Jordan, Jesse Eisenberg, and Kevin Hart as teammates on the down-on-their-luck but plucky Idaho Stampede coached by an alcoholic John Stockton who — through a series of zany events — work their way up through the D-League to make it to the big time.

Adam Silver, you’re welcome in advance.