The League has been teasing major rule changes for years, and now it has a perfect opportunity.
The novel coronavirus has shut down the NBA (as well as all other major sports leagues and industrialized nations) for several weeks now. The NBA has been adamant about its intention to finish the season and crown a champion, with such restrictions on attendance as the public health situation makes necessary.
The suddenness of the disruption came as a shock to everyone. It’s exact duration and severity remain unclear. But this total, grinding halt to sports activity has also given the NBA a golden opportunity to have a dialogue about the rule book without the distractions of current play.
Already this year, the NBA proposed a change to the regular-season format with its mid-season tournament idea. Commissioner Adam Silver has also floated the notion of potentially pushing back the start date of the season permanently to accommodate the delays the virus has created. These conversations have naturally opened the door to additional potential changes.
With that in mind, what will the NBA of 2025-2030 look like?
For a number of years, the NBA has had a regular season problem. On one hand, players are unhappy with the high number of games and back-to-backs, arguing that more rest and fewer games would result in fewer injuries and more consistently exciting play. On the other hand, in spite of the high number of games, viewer interest in the regular season is handicapped by the ad nauseam repetition by both players and commentators that only the playoffs really matter.
Late last year, Silver floated a draft solution that would take four games off of the regular season and introduce a mid-season tournament. It is clear what he hoped to accomplish; reduce the workload for players and increase rest while trying to find a creative way to compensate owners for the revenue lost as a result.
The mid-season tournament may help to promote viewer interest during the grind of the regular season, yet it has met with unenthusiastic reviews from media and owners alike. It runs the risk of becoming gimmicky, but a highlight of the NBA throughout its history has been a willingness to adapt based on feedback.
With significantly lower revenues being projected into the future as the economic reverberations of the coronavirus unfold, the odds of the players winning a more dramatic reduction in games (some have proposed a 65-70 game season) currently seem remote.
A potentially more interesting – and more profitable – opportunity may have been unintentionally afforded by the suspension of play due to coronavirus. The Association’s determination to finish the season when conditions allow will severely reduce if not eliminate the usual off-season schedule. The most obvious solution is simply to push back the scheduled beginning of next season to permit, at the very least, a condensed off-season.
Under the current schedule, the NBA begins every year in direct competition with the late-season NFL, which is far and away the most popular sporting competition in the United States. It then competes throughout its season with the NHL, and throughout its playoffs with the beginnings of baseball season.
If, on the other hand, NBA basketball began sometime in December – Christmas recommends itself as a high visibility date – it would both avoid much direct competition with the NFL and place its playoffs in the late summer. The late summer months are notoriously bland ones in American sports, when fan interest tends to wander. The potential for increasing viewership by putting the NBA playoffs in that time frame is vast.
Colin Cowherd, among several other commentators, has pointed out that this league suspension presents an ideal opportunity to craft such a change without disrupting the league any more than it already has been.
Given the exigencies of the moment, and the need for a proper off-season so players can recover, the league will almost be forced either to do something along these lines or to shorten next season as well. As shortening next season would produce another enormous loss of revenue for the NBA, it would be surprising if the league took the latter course. Don’t be surprised if a December-to-August NBA season becomes the new normal.
For most of its history the NBA, bizarrely, left youth development of its future stars to collegiate programs which played under a very different set of rules than the one it endorsed. That began to change with predecessors of the G-League being established in 2001, and again in 2005 when the late former Commissioner David Stern announced his intention to develop it into a full minor league system. That vision is only just beginning to come to fruition.
This process, along with the myriad problems embedded in the structure of the NCAA, has called into question the future of collegiate sports in the NBA development pipeline. Innovations like the two-way contract and the slow but steady increase in G-League salaries for players are increasing the vibrancy and competitiveness of that league, which is an important development for a league with the expressed goal of producing NBA-caliber players.
For the first time, high level American prospects are choosing to play with professional organizations abroad until they turn 19, rather than play NCAA basketball. Recent big names like Emmanuel Mudiay (China) and LaMelo Ball (Australia) have taken this path without seeing their draft stock suffer.
As legal and public relations problems within NCAA sports continue to mount (not to mention the NCAAs absurd aversion to paying the people who make money for it), the NBA seems likely to find itself in a position where more and more of its elite prospects decide to take themselves abroad to prepare for the draft. In light of that development, it may choose one of two possible courses.
The first is to do nothing and encourage certain international leagues to specialize in the development of young talent. This would effectively outsource the development process, permitting the league to focus on other matters. The G-League, in this scenario, would remain what it is today – the realm of second round/undrafted picks looking to prove themselves, reclamation projects, and elite amateur players trying to go pro.
The second, more ambitious route would see either a significant increase across the board in G-League salaries or (more likely) a limited number of exceptions per team permitting higher salaries to prospects. This would enable NBA teams to begin directly developing talent earlier in the kind of immersive environment only a professional organization can provide.
Teams would be able to work at the development level on skills they want their prospects to bring to the major league team, with the larger team picture in mind from the beginning. Indeed, there would be nothing at that point stopping the league from lowering the floor age into the teens and using the G-league as a true talent development league for the NBA, superseding both the NCAA and AAU.
For all the controversy surrounding the significant changes in the NBA game in the last ten years, the game has never been prettier or more fluid. There are signs, though, that recent trends may be taking the league to a less pleasant place.
The gradual spacing revolution in basketball has improved the aesthetic of the game, but as more and more teams adapt to the new reality of the league, the efficiency competition becomes more and more cutthroat. Increasingly elaborate ways of devising foul shots and spot-up threes have been devised.
The hyper-vigilant enforcement of contact rules against perimeter defenders compromises defenses across the league. When dribble penetration inevitably draws help, a spot-up 3 becomes likely.
Players like James Harden have tortured defenses by manipulating not only their coverages, but the referees. He manipulates the field of vision of each referee with surgical precision to manufacture scenes of apparent contact by the defender which he has himself initiated.
That is no knock to Harden: he is one of the most efficient volume scorers and distributors of all time. But the absurd efficiency of foul shots in combination with the ease of drawing fouls on the perimeter produces a perverse incentive for players. When the rule structure creates an incentive to manipulate the referees to the neglect of making a genuine field goal attempt, it requires attention.
The huge gap in physicality permitted in the post as opposed to the perimeter has simply made chasing shooting fouls and spot-ups a more effective strategy than is consistent with an aesthetically diverse game.
What makes basketball such a marvelous game is the constant interplay between big and small, strength and speed, skill and athleticism. If the NBA continues to privilege perimeter play at the expense of larger players, that aesthetic diversity in the league will eventually be lost under an avalanche of wings taking 60% of their shots per game from 3. It would be an enormous blow for the NBA to lose bigs entirely, and the league will have to act in the next ten years to prevent that from happening.
In spite of its recent TV ratings issues, the NBA as a brand is one of the best positioned in all of global sports. It needs to continue to display the forward thinking strategy and willingness to adapt that have characterized it from the beginning. It has major choices to make on each of the above fronts that will affect both the quality and growth of the league.
Additional new sources of change will be opened as well, as the game continues to globalize. The time-honored success of the Euroleague as well as growing leagues in China and Australia – not to mention the upcoming Basketball Africa League – interplay with the NBA and amateur games to make basketball the only plausible rival to association football in terms of global culture.
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