Though it's been disguised around here by the banner year the Blazers are having, this has been a year of turmoil for the NBA. The league is facing financial troubles, rampant injuries, attendance woes in many cities, and the ongoing question of whether we're seeing great basketball here. Each of these issues is multi-faceted. There's no magic bullet for any of them, let alone all of them together. But there is a common thread that runs through them all, even if in a minor way.
The NBA has too many teams.
This is not a new assertion. We've heard it plenty of times. The volume is going to crank up over the next few years, though. More so because the league is slow to admit such things.
The traditional model of sports success has been "more". More teams, more games, more tickets sold equals more money. At what point, however, does more stop looking like success and start looking bloated?
One might ask, for instance, if making the first round of the playoffs into seven-game series instead of the earlier five really improved them or did it simply lengthen the post-season and diffuse its focus? How about those days of rest in between to get more games on TV? How many casual fans are going to watch from Game One to the last game of the Finals when that process takes two months now?
Or take the division splits. Now we have six divisions instead of four. Theoretically you have tighter rivalries and more people fighting for a guaranteed playoff seed. In practice are you even sure who are the bottom teams in your division? If you do know, how worked up do you get to play them? Does a game against the L*kers matter as much anymore? And what's with this unbalanced schedule? It used to be you knew exactly how many times you'd play each division, conference, and league rival. Now you have to look it up.
More is not always better. Sometimes it's too much, too confusing, and leaves things too thinly spread.
In terms of individual teams' financial health, identification and branding, and talent pool, plus league-wide in terms of scheduling and rivalries developed, the NBA would be better off losing a few teams.
I want to give you an example of what things could look like. I'm going to pick six teams from the league whose attendance has been down over the last three years, some of whom are also rumored to be in financial trouble, others of whom have dissatisfied owners, others of whom have shallow histories in their community. I'm picking these teams as examples only and I genuinely apologize to the fans and bloggers of these teams for naming them. I want to give concrete examples to back up my point but I specifically DON'T intend this to be a final argument for these six teams. If all that gets reported and commented on is "Dave wants to get rid of this team!" then things have gone awry. That is neither the intent nor the focus. The idea is that some contraction needs to happen and these teams are believable candidates for various reasons, and thus useful for the sake of argument.
The six teams I'm going to use are Sacramento, Memphis, Indiana, Charlotte, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City. OKC actually has decent attendance this year but there's no history there and nothing to indicate that this won't become another Memphis/Vancouver situation of declining support after the initial blush has worn off. In any case, if you don't like a team's inclusion just throw them out and put in the Clippers or Bucks or Hawks instead.
The first decision you'd have to make would be how to align the 24 teams. Personally my favored method would be two conferences with two divisions of 6 teams each. But in order to make the scheduling work there you'd have to cut down to 78 games instead of 82. Each team would play the opposite conference teams twice (12 x 2 = 24 games), the teams in its own conference but the opposite division four times (6 x 4 = 24 games), and the teams in its own division six times (remember you're not playing against your own team so 5 x 6 = 30). 24+24+30=78 games total.
Since the league would never, ever go for cutting four games from the schedule you also have to look at making it work with 24 teams and 82 games. In this case you'd have to keep the current six divisions, each with four teams. You'd still play the opposite conference twice (24 games). The in-conference but opposite division teams you'd play five times (8 x 5 = 40 games). Teams in your own division you'd play six times (3 x 6 = 18 games). 24+40+18=82 games total.
Either way you'd have a predictable number of games against each team each year. The second option leaves a home-away imbalance for your conference non-division teams, but that's unavoidable in that situation. (Remember, 78 games and absolute equality is preferable to me.)
One possible reaction is, "You want us to play the same teams five or six times?" To that I reply with a whole-hearted, "YES!!!" The schedule whips by too quickly as it is now. Players seldom get the chance to prepare or adjust for a team. This is part of why the learning curve is so steep for younger players. It detracts from the quality of play. The more often you play a team the better you know them. You're going to see better basketball, in some cases even playoff-level basketball, sooner in a season and in a career. If the small reduction in variety of team names disturbs you, consider this: for every game you give up against the Thunder and Grizzlies you're getting more games against the L*kers, Spurs, Rockets, and the rest of the teams. You wouldn't pay or tune in to see that?
What's more, the teams you were facing would be deeper. Here is a list of 24 semi-recognizable players who would become available to the 24 remaining teams after contraction.
- Kevin Martin
- Andres Nocioni
- Beno Udrih
- Spencer Hawes
- O.J. Mayo
- Rudy Gay
- Marc Gasol
- Mike Conley
- Danny Granger
- T.J. Ford
- Mike Dunleavy
- Troy Murphy
- Jarrett Jack
- Gerald Wallace
- Boris Diaw
- Emeka Okafor
- Raja Bell
- D.J. Augustin
- Al Jefferson
- Kevin Love
- Randy Foye
- Kevin Durant
- Jeff Green
- Russell Westbrook
Every team in the league gets to pick up one of these guys. And there are more mid-bench players behind them. Anyone want to argue that you wouldn't see better basketball overall? You would see some of the basement teams get better immediately. You'd have the possibility of some super teams that lasted more than two seasons. You'd see fewer teams done in by one or two injuries. You could get up for seeing most every team most every night. Again...playoff level basketball earlier than we now see it.
The devil's in the details: playoff seeding, division assignments, compensation for the owners whose teams are contracted, convincing the players' union, and the like. There would still be plenty to work through. I don't mean this to be a comprehensive plan as much as a demonstration of possibilities. But I think the possibilities are there.
If you want to make this league better--if you want to take a shot at making it great and entertaining and tense and relevant and reportable again--consider streamlining it. Chowing down on everything in sight isn't the healthiest plan. It's time to step away from the buffet and doing some targeted eating instead. One filet mignon is a more satisfying experience than all of the Grade D beef product you can eat.