NEW YORK — The NBA seems intent on changing the status quo, feeling the traditional 82-game regular season doesn’t do enough to keep fans interested and players motivated consistently.
The playoffs hold so much weight, both for the players and fans, the regular season feels more like an exhibition than a critical piece to an eight-month story — and stars are judged disproportionately on how they perform in May and June.
There are exceptions from October to April, but not enough games have a playoff-like feel, and with the slightly overblown narrative of load management, it’s hard to feel invested in the regular season.
So if change is inevitable, it must affect the playoffs, the most valuable product in the NBA.
Currently, every series is seven games with a 2-2-1-1-1 format. The first round used to be a little more exciting with the five-game series, but the NBA has too much money invested in potential seven gamers, and it didn’t want to risk good teams wasting 82 games in a fluke matchup.
So with that in mind, the league should consider a heavily tilted playoff setup, by going 2-2-3 in the second round and conference finals before returning back to the somewhat traditional format of 2-3-2 in the NBA Finals.
Insane, even, as it takes a home game away from the team that already doesn’t have home-court advantage.
But it incentivizes the regular season at all levels, making it a true race at every playoff seed, because who wouldn’t want five home games in a playoff series?
Will owners approve of such a change that will take away profits from a home game in the playoffs? Seems unlikely, considering most owners are risk-averse, but presenting a scenario that keeps buildings full and ratings high during the 82-game marathon could be enough to make them think.
The NBA isn’t facing a crisis; plenty of stars have missed large chunks of games due to real injuries this season and that has affected ratings, which will determine the league’s bargaining power in its next TV rights deals. TV partners and advertisers want guaranteed performers — cost certainty, of sorts.
It has to determine if such radical change is worth it, or if this recent trend is just a blip in the overall view.
This or any change strips away at the basic fabric of the game, but it’s not as nonsensical as a midseason tournament that players won’t be able to feign interest in. Having such a lopsided setup for playoff series is hard to swallow at first blush, but it keeps fans interested in where their teams sit every moment of the season. Competitive teams will barely be able to keep their top players out because every game affects the big picture — and at the very least, they’ll have to be judicious about resting players.
The plan has its drawbacks, certainly. Players can wear down before the playoffs begin, with the maximized importance of every game possibly leading to a less-than-optimal product.
It also encourages risks from teams, so they’ll have to be careful about the cost of the extra games in close races. Nobody wants to walk into a seven-game playoff series knowing their only home games will be Games 3 and 4.
It would be intriguing on the front end, watching teams battle over playoff seeding instead of cruising to the regular-season finish line in preparation for the postseason.
It could make the arms race for extra bodies more fervent than it already is, making many lottery-bound teams bow out of contention early and trading productive players for future draft picks. That could give out-of-contention teams more leverage around the trade deadline and put them in potential position to rebuild sooner.
The Los Angeles Clippers could be an easy target because of Kawhi Leonard and how they’re handling his health. Whether you agree or not, they’re taking a long-term view for a playoff run, eschewing regular-season performance because the system makes it beneficial for them to look at the big picture.
Would they change their approach with a lopsided playoff setup? Possibly not, considering they play in the same city, in the same building as the team they view as their main competition, the Lakers.
But if they viewed the surging Houston Rockets (two games behind the Clippers) as a threat, would the prospect of just two home games in a playoff series cause them to re-evaluate their strategy?
Could it make the playoffs less compelling because upsets are unlikely?
Is the league willing to accept whatever unintended consequences always occur whenever there’s such a monumental shift in the way things are done?
Or is the league willing to push all the chips forward for the regular season, believing the fans will be there when the games count the most, and the players will adjust to whatever new reality that’s decided?
They’re evaluating plenty of things at Olympic Tower in Midtown Manhattan, and if they’re throwing everything against the wall, here’s something that could stick.
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