Last week I wrote a blog describing my disbelief that the NBA was seriously considering lengthening the All-Star break to a full week to allow the “stars” time off as well as the rest of the league. I felt there were far more pressing issues the league needs to address before worrying how the showcase players are protected.
However, I was rather vague on what the league needs to address. To be fair, I figured this week I would address three issues that fans of the NBA should be more concerned about than lengthening the All-Star break.
First: Conference competitiveness
The NBA draft is supposed to help balance competitiveness by rewarding the weaker teams with higher draft picks. That isn’t happening.
Now drafting is as much art as science and many teams have made dreadful draft mistakes. The Grizzlies for instance passed on James Harden, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, DeMar DeRozen…heck they passed on Patty Mills to take Hasheem Thabeet. Stupid decisions in the draft by a timid front office and an interfering owner can’t be eliminated in the league office.
What can be eliminated somewhat is a system that doesn’t allow the weaker teams and opportunity to make a mistake.
This season the Memphis Grizzlies could end up in the lottery. If the Grizzlies aren’t in the lottery then a team with a record way above .500 likely will. That’s how competitive the Western Conference is this season. In the East it is highly probable all 4 of the lower seeded playoff teams will have records at or below .500 for the season. This means that at least one and probably a lot more teams in the West will be dipping into the new talent pool earlier than the weaker teams in the East simply because of the playoff and draft system in place in the league.
And this isn’t a rare occasion. Last season (2012-13) Dallas and Utah finished out of the playoffs in the West but would have qualified in the East. The 2011-12 season has the top 16 teams competing in the playoffs but 2010-11 saw 3 Western Conference teams fail to make the playoffs despite a better record than playoff teams in the East.
It is a long shot but still possible that a team in the West with a record that would give them home court advantage in the East could end up with the top pick in the draft this season. It is reasonable to assume that at least one of the teams in the East who qualify for the playoffs with a worse record than non-playoff in the West will miss out on a top pick in a draft loaded with talent.
That means greater disparity moving forward.
And the schedule is biased to prevent these outcomes. Teams in the East play each other 4 times while playing the West only twice each year. Likewise teams in the West play each other 4 times but can feast on the weaker East only twice. That means the weaker teams get to play each other more often than the stronger teams and STILL they can’t consistently find a way to have their playoff teams among the top 16 teams in the league.
This is a system that will perpetuate itself for a long time if weaker teams consistently reach the playoffs and stronger teams are in the lottery in theory getting stronger players in the draft.
There is a solution of course but it would require tearing down the conference system entirely. Instead of taking the top 8 in each conference, take the division winners and the next best 10 teams into the playoffs. With a schedule biased toward conference play anyway, it doesn’t eliminate conference rivalries entirely. It just allows the top 10 non-division winners an opportunity to make the playoffs.
In a sense it would be replicating the most popular sporting event every year, the NCAA tournament. For those that don’t know, the NCAA takes all conference winners and then invites the best teams that failed to win their conferences. The NBA should do the same.
Second: The Schedule
Back-to-back games are the bane of the NBA and need to be eliminated or at least reduced. The problem is, with so many games each season and scheduling conflicts with arenas looking to have some event all year round, there is no way around having back-to-back games currently.
The solution is simple on paper but hard in reality. The league needs fewer games. The last thing the league needs right now is a longer break for the All-Stars meaning a longer season or more back to back games. It isn’t fair to the paying public. Fans pay a lot of money to see these games. The league needs to insure that they are getting their money’s worth with players properly rested.
Ideally the system would be to play your division rivals 4 times a season and the rest of the league only twice. However that would cut 16 games off the current schedule. That would make the season 20% shorter. Even I have to admit that is too big of a hit for the league’s owners to swallow. At a minimum the players union would have to agree to a pro-rata cut in pay to reflect the fewer games and I don’t believe that could pass a vote. A 20% across the board pay cut is too severe for a large majority of NBA players.
However, a more flexible schedule allowing teams to play 4 games against their division but only 3 games against the rest of the conference and 2 against the other conference would only reduce the schedule a little. Then you cap the amount of back to back games at a reasonable number and the overall quality of the games would be improved. More games would be viewed as important as well increasing fans interest in those games. Fewer games would mean fewer dead leg games and more intensity in the games being played.
As fans, this is a far better situation. Tickets aren’t cheap in the NBA for the most part. Food and drink aren’t either. The least the league could do is to make every game that the fans pay for as fair and exciting as possible. Having a team come to town for their one visit of the year after playing half way around the country the previous night is disrespectful to the fans in attendance. It needs to be stopped.
Third: The Draft Lottery
Is there a bigger joke in the league than the draft lottery? The law of unintended consequences really had a field day with this idea.
Problem: A team or two would from time to time deliberately throw away an entire season to try to win the top pick in the draft to acquire a franchise changing player.
Solution: Create a system that takes away the guaranteed draft position.
Sounds logical doesn’t it.
The problem is the league created a system that punishes legitimately bad teams every season not every now and then and encourages a far greater number of teams to deliberately throw games in an attempt to improve their opportunity to land that franchise changing player. It has gotten so bad that ESPN started the season with a series on the teams they expected to tank this year.
It’s easy to look back today and ask “how did they not see that coming?” After all, a team is no different from an individual and they act in their own best self-interest. By increasing the odds of landing a top pick the league stopped that one team throwing a season and instead created a system where nearly half the league has no incentive to play to win for a large part of the season. Playing the spoiler for a team striving to improve their playoff position is now a disincentive to teams out of the playoff hunt.
One solution is to eliminate the lottery entirely, and with it the disincentive of a near majority of teams to lose games. That likely isn’t feasible since the NBA loves the lottery for the attention it brings. I’m sure the NBA is planning an hour-long prime time special in the future to promote the lottery more than they are considering scrapping it.
However, there is a middle ground. You don’t have to allow every non-playoff team into the lottery. Why not set a limit to the number of lottery teams with everyone else being slated by records? Instead of having all 14 teams in the lottery cut it down to 7 teams. Why 7? That’s simple. This was the original number of teams that qualified for the lottery. Expansion increased the number of teams to its current 14 number.
Consider that under the current system, teams ranked 8-14 after the season have a combined 8.2% chance of getting the top pick. That’s basically no chance at all. And they shouldn’t have a chance. That’s the point. These teams aren’t one of the weakest teams in the league and they don’t need nor do they deserve one of the top picks. The whole purpose of the draft is to disperse talent among the teams needing an influx. It is not supposed to reward teams just on the outside of the playoffs.
And you know if one of those teams did win the lottery this season people would be screaming about a fix being in. Doubly so if it ends up that teams from New York or LA win.
These are the major issues the NBA needs to address. If they can fix the competitive balance issues by reworking the playoff system, the scheduling issues by reducing the games and finally the lottery system that rewards losing games for a large number of teams then the issue of rest during the All-Star game may not be so significant.