Time to Shorten the NBA Season

In his annual State of the League address on All-Star Weekend, Commissioner David Stern acknowledged both owners and players have the capacity for mutual assured destruction as the league's CBA winds to its end on June 30. But his words didn't send a Cold War chill through his entire audience. The last labor unrest in 1998 was the progenitor of a refreshingly-shortened 50-game season that proved disappointing only in its failure to serve as the prototype for seasons to come.

The dog days that follow the 2011 NBA All-Star game are good occasion for owners and players to take the pulse of their league, and the hard truth both sides need to confront is that the regular season should have ended last Thursday night. It has become a megalith strapped around the necks of fans who labor to tread the rising waters of a surplus of supply, a burden that can be alleviated this June before spectator demand seeks a more appropriate level.

For one thing, there is calendar creep. The Lakers kicked off defense of their NBA championship on September 25, just 100 days after winning their 16th title. This season will take them into late June again if they are to repeat. Something is wrongly out of place in taking a radio to the beach to listen to a winter sport's championship. It's like finding Ross the Intern sitting at a back table in your cigar bar. For that matter, I wouldn't mind getting back a piece of May. It would make a nice head start on crabgrass prevention and time to buy my wife a decent Mother's Day present for a change.

The bigger question is, what are we trying to achieve by running out an endless string of meaningless games? At this point, the season is already twice as long as that of college basketball. There's a long way yet to go, but the slate of meaningful games left to play is about as long as Mick Jagger's penis. The Lakers are a lock in this year's Finals, and no amount of back-to-back drubbings in Charlotte and Cleveland is going to change that. The only thing their pre-All-Star fizzle proved is that they, like so many of Stern's subjects, are bored senseless by the droning schedule. Phil Jackson is the only guy in Hollywood with his Hanes in a bunch, and that's sure to settle out as soon as his March issue of AARP the Magazine comes in the mail.

That's not to say there won't be a few interesting games to tip off. LeBron is due back in Cleveland on March 29, and Chris Bosh returns to Toronto to close the regular season on April 13. But, at this point, it's all personal conflict mixed in with on-court acrobatic theatre. Hey, did you know Blake Griffin has 140 dunks on the season? He has to be nearing some rookie record in the category. Not that it matters, but the Clippers are the 13th seed in the West, and 140 more dunks aren't getting them into the postseason.

For other teams, however, there is still some playoff positioning in the balance, but it's more an exercise of chair rearranging. Each division is by-and-large wrapped up, with all six leaders no less than four games in front; three have leads of at least nine games. They may no longer be assured the top three seeds in their respective conferences, but the Dallas Mavericks are the only second-place team that can shake things up.

If you're following the hotly-contested eighth-seed battles between Charlotte and Indiana in the East and Memphis and Utah in the West, keep in mind that it's been 17 years since Dikembe Mutombo became the poster child for Anything-is-Possible in the NBA postseason. An eight-seed has only won twice since; the 2007 Golden State Warriors are the only team to accomplish it in a seven-game series. The days of players rolling on the floor holding their heads in disbelief went out with pagers, and that fact is enough to bring down an early curtain on the balance of this season. If you want drama in your spring, switch to NASCAR.

The knell, of course, has been sounded by the protectionists that make up front offices around the NBA. Like every sport outside of football, professional basketball has established its overextended regular season through much perseverance; the league incrementally added on to it all through the 1960s until reaching the current 82 games in 1967-68. They're not about to give it up, which means many more miles of Kings-at-Timberwolves and Wizards-at-Raptors before we sleep.

What's more, the NBA has laid claim to ever-increasing chunks of spring; the last game of that 1968 season was played on May 2; last year's final game was on June 17. That's a six-week cut out of baseball's vernal monopoly. Why let fans spend dollars on hope when they're still willing to spend it on despair?

Stern and NBA owners are probably right in their assessment that Reaganomics won't work. If more money is put back into fans' pockets by eliminating meaningless post-All-Star dates, they will more than likely spend it on Dodgers tickets than updating their wardrobe with the latest Ron Artest Lakers jersey.

But trickle-down hasn't worked so well on the supply side, either. Putting more money into owners' and players' pockets may be a boon to tattoo parlors, gun shops, and strip clubs, but it's not doing much for the common man, who now needs to shell out $505.64 to watch the swooning Knicks rappel down the Eastern Conference standings. And that will seem like petty cash if Carmelo Anthony comes to town.

Cash is king in the NBA, as it is in every corner of life. As long as the league schedules it, fans will come. Nor is the return of a 50-game schedule going to be championed during upcoming CBA negotiations; as in 1998, that can only be achieved through a resultant lockout.

So we may as well leave the tanning oil on the garage shelf and enjoy the theatre. After all, 140 dunks can't be all wrong, even if David Stern and 30 owners are.

Comments and Conversation

February 21, 2011

Anthony Brancato:

A proposal for a shortened NBA season when the NFL wants to lengthen theirs? Interesting.

But if they do shorten the season, I for one would like to see the new schedule emphasize division rivalries more - as basketball is the only sport that does not do this.

And citing past incidents like the 2004 Auburn Hills fiasco as a reason for not doing it is being scared.

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