It was given last rites when the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers coasted through multiple campaigns, but the Warriors brought out the defibrillators and resuscitated it. Two months later, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors turned into 30 Jack Kevorkians in the NBA Finals.
The NBA regular season is dead.
The NBA is doing fantastically well in so many respects. The ratings for Warriors/Cavs were so good, the NBA might have to find a way to make sure there’s another rematch next June! (I kid, I kid.) The exploding cap means this offseason promises to be wild, so the Association will succeed in pulling off an NFL-style feat — staying in the public conversation even when no games are being played. However, the National Football League, Major League Baseball and even the National Hockey League have something the NBA never will, at least at its current length — a regular season that matters in the great scheme to anyone other than gamblers, the owners and league employees who profit, and fans with nothing better to do from November until mid-April.
What’s left to accomplish during a regular season? The Warriors started 2015-16 with a 24-game winning streak and won 73 games, in the process creating an obscene number of memorable moments and pressure-packed (relatively speaking) games for a team that clinched a playoff spot at the end of February. Not only will it be next to impossible for another team to match 73, but no team will even want to try. Who wants to deal with the pressure, or the mental and physical toll of playing that hard throughout an entire season, before the true test begins? Maybe we can’t prove the chase for 73 made the Warriors more susceptible to injury in the playoffs, but from the eye test it appeared that Cleveland benefited more from their shorter playoff series than the Warriors did from their home court advantage and regular season history-making.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were mocked for how they played during the regular season. Underachievers! Yeah, underachievers who outplayed the Warriors throughout most of the Western Conference Finals. The Cavs fired their coach. Malcontents! Yeah, malcontents who’ll ride down the streets of Cleveland tomorrow in front of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans.
The regular season has value … for the teams themselves. The franchises rake in millions while players and coaches hone their style of play, test new plays and rotations, and see every other team at least twice. It’s how the NBA stays in the conversation through the colder months, even though everyone knows who’s going to make the playoffs (save for one or two seeds that have zero chance of contending for a title) by January.
One could make an argument to shorten every regular season in the major North American sports, but no league needs an abbreviated schedule more than the National Basketball Association.
- Baseball has pennant races that still matter, and it seems like wild card teams have won the World Series more often than not in recent years.
- The NFL’s 16-game schedule is short enough to ensure that almost every week matters to all but the very worst teams.
- The NHL’s regular season (also 82 games, also too long) doesn’t suffer from the problems the NBA’s does — namely the worst teams tanking and the best teams often coasting (as egregiously as we see these practices occur in the NBA, at least).
- Players who take it easy during a regular season NFL or NHL game risk serious injury.
The NBA will tell you that everything is fine, fans love the product, and the players (who travel in chartered planes and sleep in luxury hotels) can handle the strain. When teams are selling regular season tickets for hundreds of dollars apiece and season ticket holders are forced to pay for 41 games to have a chance at acquiring playoff tickets, the financial plan is sound, indeed. However, fans are wising up to the ridiculousness of an overlong schedule that forces teams to travel a ton (especially West Coast teams), and play back-to-back games and four-games-in-five-nights too frequently.
What’s the solution? Cutting the regular season to 58 games (two against each team, ditch the conferences altogether, allow the top 16 teams to make the playoffs) would be fantastic, but they’ll never do that. Hell, the NBA will never change any of this — even after every team’s uniform is plastered with advertisements — but they should at least consider moving to a 72-game slate. Have teams play twice against each squad from the other conference and three times against each team in their own conference.
With coaches resting healthy stars, the previously mentioned problems with tanking and teams in the top tier cruising through games, plus example after example of teams with so-called problems throughout the winter that somehow find ways to “turn it on” in the second season (the season that matters), why are fans supposed to care about the regular season at all? The records have all been set by Golden State. When the Warriors and their fans say they can’t wait for next season to start so they can avenge their loss to Cleveland, what they really mean is they can’t wait until next postseason.