In the last column, we discussed how the NBA's competitive imbalance between the two conferences could be solved by eliminating conferences and divisions altogether. My solution was to chop the schedule from 82 games to 74, and to reduce the imbalance in NFL fashion, where after you account for the 58 games where each team plays the other 29 squads twice, the remaining 16 games in the schedule would be set up where playoff teams from the previous season play each other again and teams that missed the playoffs from the previous season play each other once again.
The way I see it, the league's biggest problem, even more than competitive imbalance, is that the quality of the games suffers from the insane travel schedule the league imposes on them. Every team plays between 17-23 back-to-back games, they have constant three-games-in-four-nights situations to negotiate and even the occasional four-games-in-five-nights. These clumps wear out the players and hurt the product. Coaches find themselves unable to schedule any practices to improve their clubs. Stars suffer fatigue-related injuries and aren't able to play their best from night to night. All too often we see teams and players mail games in --play without really playing-- because they're just too exhausted mentally and physically.
It shouldn't have to be this way. The NBA regular season runs roughly from Oct. 30 to April 15. That's about 168 days to squeeze in 82 games. Take away a week for the All-Star break and chop off a couple more for holidays, and there you have the explanation for a few of the back-to-backs, but not most of them. The thing is though, if you really examine it, the weekly NBA schedule isn't balanced. It's densely packed on Wednesday and Fridays and relatively thin the other days. Conversely, the NBA's sister league, the NHL --teams share many arenas-- packs their games on Thursdays and Saturdays and backs off the rest of the week.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said recently that one of his chief priorities is to tweak the league's scheduling system to dramatically reduce the number of back-to-backs. He seems to recognize the league's quality and fatigue issues far more than his predecessor David Stern did. The easiest way for Silver and the owners to reduce the number of back-to-backs will be to alter their agreement with the NHL and to play more games on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and conversely for the NHL to play more on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Obviously reducing the schedule by a few games would also greatly improve flexibility.
Here's how I would design the schedule: First, I'd scrap the last week of preseason and start the regular season the last week of October, around the 25th. That gives us 173 days to fit in 74 games. Except I'll be taking off two weeks in February for the All-Star break (I'll explain this in the next column), so now we have 159 days to work with. That's basically 23 weeks. Each team playing three games a week for 23 weeks would be 69 games.
I'd set up the schedule so teams play every other day from Monday through Saturday. The league would have eight games every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and seven games every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Every team would have 12 M-W-F weeks and 11 Tues-Thurs-Sat weeks in those 23 weeks. Everyone would be well-rested and the weekly schedule would be more balanced. No more of having to pick between six great League Pass match-ups one night and being stuck with only two dog games the next night. Instead, we get just the right amount of NBA action every day. The highlight shows and national media could devote more time and attention to each game, which would generate more interest on a daily and nightly basis.
So why not play games on Sundays? Well, for one, having two or three consecutive days off would really enable players and teams to recharge their batteries, get some practices in and again, improve the on-court product for everyone. Injured players would miss fewer games. The other reason though is that Silver just has to accept reality. During the fall and winter the national sports consciousness is devoted to the NFL. Football gets 90 percent of the attention on Sundays plus that's the best television day as far as cable dramas go. It's time for the NBA to give up the ghost there.
Still, we do need to squeeze five more games in for every team. Remember, in our scenario we've got everyone at 69 games so far. That means we've got no choice but to play a few Sunday games. The seven weeks after the All-Star break (roughly from February 25 to April 15) get us most of the way there. I'd also include the week before the Super Bowl, where there are no NFL games, and the two Sundays prior to that, where there are only four and two NFL games respectively. That gives us ten Sundays in the yearly schedule. Each team plays on five of those ten to get from 69 games to 74. We'll schedule so the teams that play on M-W-F get a Sunday game and then flip to the Tue-Thu-Sat schedule the next week so they'll still not have to play a back-to-back. If the league computer designs it right, nobody should ever have to play a back-to-back, or at the most just a couple here and there.
If the NBA is ever to surpass the NFL for the unofficial title of "America's favorite sport" Silver and the owners have to look at the big picture. Lose some battles to win the war. Improve the quality and safety of your league and let the NFL cannibalize itself with its concussions, maiming injuries and it's never-ending assembly line of nameless, faceless, anonymous rosters, with everyone stuck in a helmet and 95 percent of its workforce completely expendable and replaceable. I still watch football, but more out of habit than any affection for it. The quality of play gets worse every year as the players put their bodies through more and more abuse, the league's greedy, shortsighted owners even subjecting them to the odd Thursday game now and again. The NBA should learn from the NFL's example. Don't over-saturate the nightly market, create some demand and above all improve the games. Eventually people will notice the difference. If the owners treat the players as their partners instead of their work force, the pie will grow for everyone in the long run.
Tune in tomorrow and we'll talk about how to increase casual fan interest during the All-Star break, and this time we'll borrow a concept from the other football.