The past two decades have seen a meteoric rise in the popularity of the NBA worldwide. Across every measure – revenue, TV ratings, merchandise sales, and a fan base spanning beyond America’s borders – the NBA is bigger than ever. Yet, despite this success, the NBA is not devoid of flaws. Among the most glaring is the basketball season itself, or more precisely its duration. Since 1967, the NBA has utilized an 82-game regular season, followed by a 4-round playoffs and final series (amounting to another 16 to 28 games). Surviving the schedule has become like running a marathon. The long season is taxing and potentially dangerous to players, detrimentally impacts game quality, particularly in the playoffs, reduces ratings, and tends to amplify the league’s competitive imbalance.
The more games played, the greater the chance of player injury. In a game that, unlike the NFL, is not inherently violent, only 18 of the NBA’s 450 players played the season’s full 82 games in 2015. While one may not expect a large percentage to play all 82 games, what does it mean when less than five percent can meet that mark? The long schedule also imposes greater wear and tear on the players, leaving them vulnerable to injury and early retirement. The season’s wear manifests itself down the stretch, robbing teams of star athletes at the worst time -- during the playoffs. Brilliant 82 game campaigns can come to an abrupt halt in the playoffs if key players are out with injury. In 2012, league MVP Derrick Rose’s torn ACL instantly doomed the first-seeded Chicago Bulls after a dominant regular season. Russell Westbrook’s torn ACL the following year thwarted Oklahoma City’s best shot to date at a title. Injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving arguably determined the outcome of the 2015 NBA Finals, proving too much for the Cleveland Cavaliers to overcome. Last season, the Golden State Warriors’ successful chase for the wins record required a full throttle approach through the regular season, drawing criticism over the risk to player safety. In the first playoff game, league MVP Stephen Curry suffered a knee injury that cost him three weeks, and prevented him from being the same dominant force in the finals, derailing the greatest regular season in NBA history. Beyond star players, injuries to Serge Ibaka ( ), Kendrick Perkins ( ), Peja Stojokovic ( ), Joe Johnson ( ), and Derek Anderson ( ) influenced the outcome of tightly contested playoff series in recent years.
Beyond player health, a long season detrimentally impacts game quality. A grueling schedule averaging 3-4 weekly games takes its toll, as players become increasingly tired and overworked. By the playoffs, where legends are made, players are far removed from their peak play. Gary Vitti, a recently retired Lakers athletic trainer of 32 years, complains that “We’ll never get to see what [players] can really do, because they are tired all of the time [due to] scheduling.” Fans can only imagine how stat stuffers like James Harden and Russell Westbrook would perform at the end of the season or in the playoffs, if given more rest. Aging players, especially, recognize that the best way to survive a long season is to alter their play. Dwayne Wade, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant serve as recent examples of players who, upon reaching their mid-30s, opted to adjust their playing styles in order to guard against injury and manage wear over the course of a long season. With a shorter schedule, we may see a higher level of explosiveness from such players, and perhaps an extension of their prime.
Arena crowds and television ratings are further diminished by the dwindling significance of each game. An 82 game schedule yields a relatively low marginal value per game. As Kobe Bryant bluntly assessed “every regular season game is worth a s---.” Now a spectator, Bryant called for the league to “shorten the schedule and look to enhance TV numbers substantially.” A shorter season would add importance to each game, likely increasing viewership in the arena and on television.
The 82 game schedule also serves to amplify the competitive imbalance of today’s NBA, where a handful of teams constitute true contenders while the rest remain muddled in mediocrity, giving the playoffs a pre-destined feel. The past four years have seen repeat champions in both Conferences. In the Eastern Conference, LeBron James’ led teams (the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers) have reached 6 consecutive finals. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the Spurs and Lakers accounted for every Western Conference finals appearance, save one. This trend looks likely to continue. In the West, the Warriors’ dynasty seems squarely in its prime while in the East, no legitimate challenger to the Cavs appears on the horizon, leading to a widely expected 3rd straight finals matchup between these two powerhouses. The lopsided nature of the league stems from other causes, but draws into question the point of a 6 month season. The limited value of any single regular season game underscores this imbalance. We simply do not need 82 games to differentiate the 4 to 8 teams that separate themselves from the pack, and having this many games only highlights the futility of each. It also has a more subtle impact. The schedule dampens the effect of a streak where an unexpected team rapidly gets hot. A 10 to 15 game “hot streak” could translate into a playoff run in a shorter season, but rarely change the landscape today. The NFL routinely sees new playoff entrants each year, where one game can determine the course of a season. In the NBA, the long schedule reinforces predictability.
Players have openly displayed their dissatisfaction with the long schedule. LeBron James stated it simply: “We all, as players, think it’s too many games.” Other players and even some owners such as the legendary Pat Riley, have also called for a shorter season. The league has responded to such complaints by reducing back-to-back games on successive days. While helpful, this fails to address the fundamental problem.
A reduction in the number of regular season games could do wonders for the NBA. It could re-energize the regular season and greatly enhance the playoffs. The playoffs are where players cement their legacy, and where the league draws its greatest luster. If players enter the postseason healthier and less worn, the brightest may shine even more brightly, and teams could truly exhibit their best play.