High Horses

Red Flag/Green Flag – NBA Edition

Written by Trevor Lightfoot

Written By: Trevor Lightfoot @TrevorLightfoot

“Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” – Mugatu

If you were casually walking across a street in a generally calm neighborhood and suddenly saw a truck speeding toward you, what would you do? With just seconds to spare you need to think quickly and decisively. If we’re being honest, then only two logical reactions exist.

  1. You continue to casually stroll and allow the speeding car to run you over. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, you just get it over with and let bygones be bygones. Hell, you’ve had a good run.
  2. You change your strategy and instead of casually walking across the street, you do something to give yourself a better chance to not get run over.

That may have been a little dramatic on my end . . . But doesn’t the National Basketball Association (NBA) seem to be perpetually fixated on sticking to option number one? Instead of being nimble and willing to attempt innovative solutions, the NBA stays the course and is consequently getting closer and closer to being trampled.

Red Flag Number One: Why should I care?

The NBA regular season typically begins in early October, with preseason games beginning in September.   Yet, every year I hear the same commentary gush out of everyone from TV or radio show hosts to even the most halfhearted fan. The general consensus is that the NBA season doesn’t truly start until Christmas. Looking at the lineup this year, there were certainly a few intriguing marquee matchups:

  1. The Chicago Bulls at the Oklahoma City Thunder
  2. LeBron’s Cavaliers at Curry’s House of Splash
  3. The Battle for Texas (Spurs at Rockets edition)
  4. The Battle for California (Clippers at Lakers edition)
  5. The Brow in South Beach (Pelicans flock to Miami)

These games offer great storylines, tremendous super stars in top-shelf one-on-one matchups, and just happen to occur on a day where essentially America shuts down and spend the entirety of the day at home.  Doesn’t this situation just feel off? Lets examine this thing bit by bit. The Cavaliers record going into the Christmas contest against the Warriors was 19 and 8, which means the team has played 27 out of their 82 regular season games, or put another way, about 33% or the season has already eclipsed. Yet, if the general consensus of the NBA season not becoming truly meaningful until the Christmas holiday, then what was the point of those 27 games that already took place?  The NBA has one of the most popular, not to mention dominant, teams complete one-third of the entire season with few people outside of Cleveland and the rest of LeBron nation showing little or no interest. From a business perspective, this doesn’t seem like the best game plan, does it? A valid point to bring up may be that these games are necessary to help teams gel, warm up, and generally get in “midseason form” before the casual NBA fan begins to pay attention, coincidentally near the end of football season. But isn’t that what the pre-season is for? And if it’s not, than what is the pre-season for? The good news is that help may not be as far away as we think though. The NBA can look for some guidance from his big, bad cousin, the NFL.

Before we go down this road, we want our readers to understand that we recognize that comparing the NFL to the NBA is not exactly like comparing apples to apples. But it is like comparing apples to applesauce, apple cider, or some other apple related product . Sure, the two professional sports organizations have plenty of massive differences (from both a business perspective as well as an athletic perspective) that in many respects should prevent the NBA from being the same conversation as the NFL. That being said, the NFL is insanely successful, not to mention domestically (and increasingly internationally) dominant, and there is one thing in particular that the NBA can learn from the ever expanding professional football league. Every. Game. Matters.

In the NFL the regular season matters and a reasonable argument can be made that every single NFL game is vitally important. Sure, divisional or rivalry games may carry a bit more weight from an emotional investment perspective, but when it comes to reaching the playoffs each game is immensely significant.   With only 16 games, each individual game represents 6.25% of a team’s total season. Compared that to the NBA, in which each game represents a measly 1.2% of a team’s total season. Speaking as both a fan and someone who is genuinely interested in the business propensity of basketball, I can’t help but watch some of these games and think, “losing a single game or even six in a row for that matter, wouldn’t have a huge impact on the entirety of the season. And when that thought of meaningless competition infiltrated a fan base, the National Basketball Association fails to provide that exhilarating combination of stress and desire that attract people to that intoxicating “make or break” mentality. The NFL has this down to a science and has successfully manufactured a sense of urgency and significance into essentially every game, every week.  So much so that the NFL can afford to:

    1. Create a weekly broadcast dedicated to showing ONLY the touchdowns and other highlights from each game and is only available through specific vendors
    2. Leverage basically any matchup between any team, from any division, with even mediocre records and package it in a way that is must see football . You cannot convince me that Thursday Night Football is must watch football, yet for often than not I end up tuning in just in case something incredible happens.
    3. Indirectly supporting an entire sub industry of fantasy football leagues, players, and addicts (you know who you are)
Green Flag Number One: I want to care! 

An eighty-two game regular season offers just too many meaningless and anticlimactic games. I’m sorry if that is difficult to hear but it is and someone had to say it and now it’s out in the open. There are several obstacles that come with shortening an NBA season. Number one, a shortened season reduces revenues and profits exponentially. Number two,  a statistical nightmare in terms of single season statistics (Steph Curry may not be able to make as many threes in a season with less games, although with his stroke anything is possible). Despite the obstacles, over the course of an entire career (at least from a player perspective) the numbers wouldn’t change all that much. As far as loss revenue is concerned, this is a bigger bugaboo. The NBA would need to supplement the revenue with exciting, fresh ideas that bring new fans to the games. What about a mid-season tournament? Or what if each playoff team could pay a transfer fee to acquire ONE other player from a non-playoff team (like a waiver wire pickup)? The one seed would get $X, the two seed would get $X + 10, etc. Meaning the eight seed could get a superstar and the one seed could get an all-star. The transfer fee concept could also apply during the regular season to “loan” players (from other NBA teams, or maybe even international players) like professional soccer. We’re just spit balling here!

Even if the NBA were to implement no new midseason tournaments or crazy loan-a-player systems there are several immediate benefits that come with shortening a season. If there were fewer games in a season we have some instantaneous positives to consider . . .

  1. Less opportunities for injury because there is wear and tear from a long grueling season
  2. Less likelihood that coaches will need to rest super star athletes just for the sake of resting them.
  3. More significance placed on each game
  4. No silly two-month “trial period” where people just pretend the season has yet to begin

The question at this point becomes a.) When should the season begin and b.) How many games should be played? Obviously there is a vast array of options to choose from, but here is what we came up with.

  1. Begin the season on Christmas with the best of the best the NBA has to offer in marquee match-up.
  2. Decrease the number of games to 51 games
    1. Play division opponents four times each = 16 games
    2. Play other conference teams two times each (one home game and one away game) = 20 games
    3. Play all teams in the opposing conference one time (alternating home and away games each year)= 15 games

Whoa, whoa, whoa . . . you guys want to decrease the NBA regular season by almost 40%?” – You.

Yes, we do. The importance of each regular season immediately shoots up to almost 2% per game. That’s still substantially lower than each NFL game, but the flip side is that it is substantially higher than what the current regular season structure offers. Additionally, the NBA would be able to create a sense of urgency for match-ups that currently feel stuck in the mud. TV ratings have been on the decline, according to Nielson rating statistics, since 1996 and now average about a 2.0 during the regular season. The reduced frequency in which two teams face off against each other will create somewhat of a special event when they come to town.

Red Flag Number Two: P is for Parity and D is for Dumb

Part of what makes the NFL so addicting and successful is that there is always an element of surprise when it comes to the playoff race. Who would have thought the Carolina Panthers would rattle off 14 straight wins before losing? Or that the New York Jets would be able to transform into a playoff contending team one year removed from winning only four games?  Not even the “experts” at ESPN are able to have a solid grasp on how predict the top teams in the NFL. Just look at some of the preseason picks for Super Bowl 50 . . .

    1. Joe Banner: Ravens vs. Eagles (neither team is playoff eligible)
    2. Damien Woody: Patriots vs. Cowboys (at least one was a good choice)
    3. Tim Hasselback: Colts vs. Seahawks (long shot, plus I think he is a bit biased toward a certain backup QB)
    4. Trent Dilfer: Chiefs vs. Cowboys  (Are you serious?) Sure, Romo got injured but didn’t you make this pick after Murray got traded to the Eagles?
    5. Not one of ESPN’s top commentators picks the Panthers or Cardinals to reach Super Bowl 50, yet they stand dominantly in positions one and two, respectively with only one game remaining in the regular season.

The point is that from a fan engagement perspective the parity between NFL teams is exactly what people want. At the start of a season, basically all NFL fans, regardless of the team they root for, can believe that their team has a realistic shot of making the playoffs, and more importantly competing in the playoffs. Now compare that to the NBA. Over half of the league (53%) makes the playoffs, yet, there is little doubt as to which teams are actually able to compete for a championship. There is almost no element of surprise in the NBA; the teams are either too consistently good or too consistently bad to warrant fans being interested.   Don’t believe me? Over the last eleven seasons, only eight teams have finished in the top four seeds more than four times.   And only five teams have finished in the top two seeds (for either conference) more than three times in that eleven year span.

How can the NBA expect fans to remain passionate, never mind patient or loyal, to a particular team if the team is unable to provide a worthwhile product for people to attach to? Remember the “Searching for Greatness” article? We took the top ten and bottom ten teams from that study and examined the operating margin for those teams over the past eleven seasons. The top ten teams average an operating margin of over 15% while the bottom ten teams average approximately 0% operating margin. Should we be surprised? Not really, and here is why.

If an organization is consistently selling a product that is not worth purchasing than consumers will have no reason to waste their money.   Why should a fan buy tickets, merchandise, concessions, or even take the time to watch a game on TV when they know in their heart of hearts that their team simply has no real shot at winning? According to NerdWallet, the average NBA ticket was $95 for the 2014-2015 season. I may be in the minority here, but I am not going to shell out $50 (not to mention the $9 beer,$7 hotdog, $12 parking, and $5 FroYo) just to watch a mediocre game in which the team I am rooting for either comes away with a predictable loss or a meaningless win. The bottom line is that fans are passionate and just like a little kid believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, fans will believe more adamantly than anyone else, maybe even more so than a team’s own players or coaching staff, that there is a bright future ahead. But when that trust is shattered and teams don’t make the playoffs for eleven straight years (cough* Timberwolves) or begin a season by tying the all time worst record (cough* 76ers) or overspend on super stars who don’t mesh together (cough, Nets) or have more front office quarrels than the cast of NBA wives (cough* Sacramento) then fans have no choice but to believe that they are simply being taken for granted. And can you blame them? The NBA, from the top down, promotes the idea of failing to succeed by rewarding the best prospects in the draft to teams who perform the worst. The San Antonio Spurs have finished worse than 6th in the Western Conference regular season only once in the past eleven years and that organizations seems to be doing just fine without top 5 picks. If the NBA truly wants to fix the underlying issue of teams losing to succeed, whether you want to call it “tanking” or not, then what is needed is an overhaul of the drafting system. The NBA should be rewarding teams who are able to produce a product that fans want to get excited and passionate about .

Green Flag Number Two: P is for Playoffs and D is for Drafting

Hope is a powerful tool. It provides a reason for fans to buy tickets to games, tune in to watch the game at home, and buy team merchandise. If the NBA can manufacture a way to give every fan at least some level of hope, then fans of teams who enter a season with low expectations (Kings, 76ers, etc.) may have a revived interest in the regular season. Here are some ideas that the Wheelhouse Factory team came up with.

Improve the playoffs:

  1. For each conference seeds 1 – 7 automatically make the playoffs based on overall record and current tie break rules
  2. Seed 8 will be determined by a “Wildcard Playoff” in which the teams who finish in 8th – 15th place, based on overall record, will enter a single elimination tournament
    1. Note: regardless of the seed that wins this tournament, the winner will be in the 8th seed
    2. Double Note: If this idea sounds familiar it’s because one of Wheelhouse Factory’s favorite writer came up with a similar concept that we are absolutely 100% in favor of. Thank you Mr. Simmons.
  3. Once the eight playoff teams have selected the rounds will go as followed:
    1. Round One: best of five games. This will create more pressure and importance on each game while also decreasing the lag time between series.
    2. Round Two: best of seven games
    3. Round Three (Conference Championship): Best of seven games
    4. Round Four (Finals): Best of seven games

Overhaul the Draft:

How did we get here? How did we get to a point where tanking to get a top notch prospect is acceptable? I mean doesn’t it seem like the 76ers have been in a “rebuild” mode forever? With a lottery system that rewards the teams who perform the worst the NBA incentivizes organizations to sustain low expectations and feed the same bologna to fans.

  1. No more lottery. Enough.
  2. Take away first round picks from the bottom performers. If finishing in the top three meant that a team could not draft a first rounder, wouldn’t that incentivize the organization a bit to not “tank”?
  3. Reward the middle of the pack teams. Teams that are seemingly perpetually stuck in the middle (Suns, Trail Blazers. Pacers, etc.) need to be recognized more. For the most part, these are teams that consistently make the playoffs or finish right outside. Despite this, come draft time the reward is a mid-first round pick that hardly every provides the necessary spark to bring a middle of the pack team to the upper echelon of teams. For example:
    1. Teams finishing in 15th lose their first round pick
    2. Teams finishing 7th – 10th receive the first eight picks
    3. Teams finishing 11th – 14th receive the next eight picks
    4. Teams finishing 1st – 6th receive the final 12 picks of the first round


Red Flag Number Three: Where is the innovation?

In 1954, the NBA revolutionized basketball by introducing the 24-second shot clock. The game instantly transformed into a fast-paced, high-scoring affair that promised excitement. Twenty-five years later the NBA again revolutionized the game by drawing an arch shaped line that begins and ends at the baseline while stretching past the key. This new line and future Steph Curry specialty offered not only a new scoring structure, but promoted a new way to compete, from the outside. Approximately twenty-five years after the three-point line was introduced the NBA and fans were starving for a new revolutionary idea. What did we get? Instant replay with confusing rules that sometimes improves the game of play but more commonly infuriates players, coaches, and fans. The people are still starving for something invigorating, something that truly brings new life to the game of professional basketball. I’m not referring to the addition of more rules such as expanding the definition of a hand check or adding one more twenty-second timeout to each team. I mean something that is really going to change the game for the better. I feel like that kid from The Incredibles.

Green Flag Number Three: Use your resources!

The NBA has an entire preseason as well as an All-Star game to use as their very own test lab. Introduce the four-pointer or take a page out of the NHL and test out some power play variations. Hell, just use any of our ideas from our NBA Rule Change article, that should get you started with some interesting ideas. We’re not saying the game needs to transform into a spectacle of ridiculousness. But bringing in a little “crazy” to the NBA would be a nice change of pace.

Fans of the NBA, individual players, and teams are quietly, and collectively, demanding more from basketball. But bickering in your office during lunch about the “problem” with the NBA just isn’t going change anything. The Wheelhouse Factory team encourages you to speak up and voice your opinions on any matter but especially this one

About the author

Trevor Lightfoot

Trevor has a bachelor degree in journalism and a masters in business administration. His specialty is basketball, late night food cravings, obscure movie quotes, and unwavering stubbornness.

Leave a Comment