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Steve Aschburner

Jeremy Lin is just one story that has sparked interest in fans, young and old, in a shortened season.
Jeyhoun Allebaugh/NBAE via Getty Images

What if this wild, 66-game season was a permanent thing?

Posted Mar 23 2012 9:43AM

Admit it. C'mon, admit it. You're having fun.

You're enjoying the breakneck pace. You're entertained as never before, with something always happening these days in the NBA. Depending on your favorite team's circumstances and prospects, you might be wringing your hands over a troubling injury or three, but on any given night you're likely to get another Video Blake Griffin throwdown, a sizzling Video double-overtime finish, Video Kobe going Kobe for some secretly thrilled road crowd and now, even onetime comic relief center JaVale McGee Video rising up late to win a game for a playoff team in the final seconds.

You don't miss November. Two preseason games seemed a little abrupt but eight rarely were great, either. Had you known that the NBA would be alive and tipping by Christmas, you could have enjoyed the end of the World Series and the heart of the NFL season; by December, a lot of those teams have been sorted out and know where they're heading and where they aren't.

This shortened season, a byproduct of the NBA labor lockout that wiped out the summer and crowded deep into fall, has made for a fascinating winter. To a lot of fans, and maybe to some of the heavy hitters in Olympic Tower in Manhattan, less truly has been more, whether anyone anticipated that or not. And 66 games has seemed equal to or greater than 82 games, for reasons beyond novelty.

So couldn't the NBA make this a permanent fix? Couldn't it roll with serendipity the way Reese's did when chocolate slammed into peanut butter? A 66-game regular season, followed by a full tournament in the postseason, could be the best of all NBA worlds, accentuating the positives and minimizing the negatives of what we get, year in and year out, from our favorite sports league.

"Starting on Christmas Day was fantastic," Boston coach Doc Rivers said Thursday. "It really was a neat thing. Everybody was excited about the league, and that was cool.

"I don't know about the number of games, but 66 in this time frame is clearly too many. But if you stretched it out, would 66 be better than 82? Yeah, if you did it over an 82-game [calendar] and did 66 -- it would be fantastic."

Even spreading out 66 games over a reasonable span of time -- shorter than the traditional regular season but less frenetic than what we have right now -- might make for a better NBA product.

The key, naturally, would be keeping most or all of the pros that have resulted from this post-lockout schedule while eradicating as many of the cons as possible. There have been plenty of both.


The Pace

This season has flown by. Three months ago, the ball hadn't even gone up for the first time; the don't-open-till-Christmas label on everything lent extra anticipation to it all (on top of what already existed from delaying the start for approximately two months -- and the offseason roster-building by five.) It seems like the cutoff for All-Star voting was a week ago Tuesday or something. Any day now, the ballots for MVP, Coach of the Year and other postseason awards will be due. Anything rushed feels a little more exhilarating, and this season surely has been both.

The Competition

So many races -- for division crowns, for playoff berths, for position within the seedings -- remain tight. For example, the New York Knicks woke up Friday in eighth, with only a 1 1/2-game lead over the Milwaukee Bucks for the Eastern Conference's final postseason spot. Yet they sat only three games behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division; winning that could put the Knicks at home in the first round, at least.

In the West, the Utah Jazz, in ninth place as the day began, might miss the playoffs entirely. Or they too could claim some homecourt, since at 25-22 they were only one game behind No. 5 Memphis (25-20) and 1 1/2 behind No. 4 Dallas (27-21). The separation that normally would occur over 82 games won't have the numbers or the time to take hold this year; more teams will be involved deeper into the schedule and then, boom!, it'll be over.

Things are tight, too, near the bottom of the standings (Charlotte Bobcats excluded). New Orleans and Washington, New Jersey, Toronto and Detroit -- all of them are closely clumped in lotteryland, with an extra loss here, a couple of blown layups there having enormous consequences for position in the Draft. Golden State owner Joe Lacob got booed the other night for what fans in Oakland felt was a white-flag raised over another season, but the take-your-lumps-now, reap-rewards-in-June process never has been speedier.

The Activity

There's always something going on. Evenings are packed tight with games -- an average of eight per night across the 124 days of this truncated season, up from 7.32 a year ago. That's only four or five more each week across 30 teams, but it keeps fingers dancing across the remote control for those who subscribe to NBA League Pass, while reducing lean or dark nights to a minimum.

Still, there has been plenty of time for the good stuff -- would "Linsanity" have been as remarkable if Jeremy Lin's dozen games leading into All-Star Weekend had been accordioned out over four or five weeks? More likely, momentum and the edge of being little-scouted might have been lost more quickly. Meanwhile, bad as it was, Dwight Howard's navel-gazing didn't seem to last nearly as long as Carmelo Anthony's Denver/New York ordeal last season.

The Games

Few players will admit it but this schedule, exhausting as it must be, suits a lot of them. Fewer practices? Fewer shootarounds? More games relative to the calendar? Sign them up. What fans tend to think of as "off days" because their favorite team happens not to be playing that night rarely are that to NBA coaches and players, who flip their schedules from second-shift to first and log even longer hours on the practice court, in video sessions and in meetings. Training camps and preseason schedules were ridiculously brief this time, but do NBA teams really need a month and eight tune-up games to get ready?

"Guys want to get paid," Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said the other day. "I know NBA players -- I've been around the business for 40 years -- and if you say, 'Do you play 55 and practice or play 66 and get paid?' The answer is 66.

"It's been a different challenge for different coaches. Like from my standpoint, we have a very young team. We've missed a lot of practice time. So a lot of our younger players, I haven't been able to get out on the floor and do a lot of the things we did last year.

If you're an older team, normally you're not practicing much anyway. I talked to Doc Rivers the other day -- his scheme, they're trying to keep those guys as fresh as they possibly can to play the games. That's normally what they do in the course of a regular season."


The Injuries

The league and many coaches have cautioned media folks not to overstate what seems like a rash of sidelined players this season. It could be, they claim, that people are talking and reporting about injuries more frequently because game nights so outnumber off nights. An ankle sprain that might have cost a player two games and three or four nights at home where no one paid any attention, now it's three or four games and a night or two at home.

Common sense, however, tells us that back-to-back-to-back demands are a recipe for physical breakdowns. And even the alleged fluke injuries "that could have happened any time" might be more likely to occur when a player already is tired or maybe hasn't fully recovered.

The Quality

Just because it's the same for everybody doesn't mean that it's good for everyone. Tired teams gutting through their fifth game in six nights, with hardly any prep time, can serve up some ugly basketball. Scoring is down: The NBA team average is 95.9 points per game compared to 99.6 in 2010-11. That's the lowest output in eight seasons. Shooting is off, too, from 45.9 percent last season to 44.6 percent, also the worst since 2003-04. Even free-throw shooting is down, 75.0 percent from 76.3 last season and 77.1 three seasons ago. Maybe tired legs and arms, and wandering concentration, are to blame.

The Fairness

This one is about the fans. Ticket holders who opted not to miss out entirely this season by seeking refunds instead have faced weeks in which they've been expected to take in three, four, sometimes five home games, frequently on consecutive nights. That's a grinding schedule, even if all one does is sit with a beer and a hot dog. It's not what they signed up for. Same with those fans who catch most of their games off TV -- there have been a lot more NBA widows or widowers this season with games packed so tight, and more frequent fights over the remote.

The Money

Sixty-six pay days is not the same as 82. That's the No. 1 impediment to a permanent switch to a shorter season. Every lost opportunity to throw open an arena's doors is lost revenue, and there are concerns -- despite record TV ratings, resilient merchandise sales and strong corporate partnerships -- about a dip in BRI (basketball-related revenue) this season.

The Records

This might seem like a minor concern, but the fact is that current NBA players will lose 16 games in compiling whatever statistics matter to them. Those who were around for the last lockout lost 32. Whether it's a spot on the all-time scoring list or a team's single-season record for steals, a shortened schedule messes with the numbers.

Fortunately, the NBA is a sport that counts more by averages than by absolute numbers -- certainly on a single-season basis, for instance, in crowning scoring and rebounding champs. This is a smaller problem, but it's real.


That's no insignificant list of negatives, which would tend to argue against embracing a compacted, shorter schedule. But the positives aren't insignificant, either.

What if there were a way to preserve most of the latter while avoiding or fixing most of the former? That would have to hold some appeal at least to the folks who market the NBA, who basically stumbled upon the boost in ratings and interest this time around.

Ultimately, it comes down to math.

The 2010-11 season was played out, essentially, over 168 days; every team had opened its season by Oct. 28 and everyone was done by April 13. That's a span of 24 weeks for 82 games, which works out to 1 game every 2.04 days or 3.42 games per week. There were 82 game days and 86 non-game days, or a ratio of 1.05 "rest" days for every game.

This season is madcap and zany by comparison: Just 124 days from Christmas to the finales on April 26, even with Leap Day available. That is 17 weeks and 5 days for 66 games. And that works out to one game every 1.88 days or 3.73 games per week. It also works out to 66 game nights and 58 non-game nights, a ratio of only 0.88 "rest" nights for every 1 game.

Imagine, though, a 66-game season that began on Dec. 1 and ended April 13 (the end date for 2010-11). That would provide 147 days -- 21 weeks -- for 66 games, which would work out to one game every 2.23 days or 3.14 games per week. That's a less hectic pace than the traditional 82-game season. There would be 66 game days and 81 non-game days, a relatively cushy ratio of 1.23 "rest nights" for every 1 game. Bye bye, three games in three nights or five in six.

There would be 81 days to practice, travel, rest -- whatever the coaches wanted. The games would remain as valuable, the standings would stay as tight, the fans would be able to enjoy the season at a less grueling pace.

As for competitive balance, 66 games could be structured fairly enough; a team could face every club in the other conference twice, one home and one road, for 30 games. It could face rivals in its own divison four times, two home and two road, for 16 more. Then it would face the other 10 teams in its own conference twice, one home and one road, for the final 20 games needed. This would have the happy bonus of making division races more meaningful (though the current playoff bracket doesn't relly reward that as a priority).

Money? That's the big hang-up, the reason a reduction from 82 games to 66 is a "non-starter," as one league executive called it Wednesday. But maybe what looks like a 20 percent loss in revenue could be made up in a variety of ways -- a little bump in ticket prices (for fewer games), a little cut in pay (for less work, remember), a bigger bump in TV and corporate contracts if the "smaller" NBA is equally or more popular than the "bigger" NBA. Maybe a shorter season would go over so well, and be seen as so exciting, that BRI wouldn't drop at all by the time all the streams were counted.

"You just have to figure out the number that works financially for everybody," Rivers said. "But 66 may be the number, if it was over the whole year. You'd see great ball every night. Rested athletes usually means good athletes."

The "less is more" mantra doesn't have to be a motto just for architects, artists and the other minimalists. Less really could be more for pro basketball fans and everyone else associated with the NBA.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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