Imagine the terror that must have swept through the offices of NBC and the NBA a couple of weeks ago when it looked like the Portland Trail Blazers might come back and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, setting up a Portland-Indiana Finals series that would have made for TV ratings in the UPN range.
The Lakers, with their marquee players Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, came through, and the Lakers-Pacers ratings have been about what you'd expect on the basis of the rest of this year's numbers: down some from last year, down a lot from two years ago and about as low as they've been in two decades.
Everybody with a pencil has a theory about why the NBA has lost its sheen -- too little scoring? Labor problems? Not enough Michael Jordan? The cyclical nature of youth fashion? -- but I come to you with solutions. All the NBA has to do to reclaim its audience is change the very nature of the way the game is played.
Here are my suggestions.
Shrink the playoffs: The NBA regular season is a joke. There are 29 teams in the league, and they play 82 games to eliminate 13 of them. Twenty games into this season, was there any doubt the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Pacers or Heat would make the playoffs? Or that the Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Bulls or Hawks wouldn't?
The whole year comes down to seeing which of the teams that win about half of their games will squeeze into the top eight of each conference. This year the Pistons and Bucks (42-40) edged the Magic (41-41) in the East, while the Kings (44-38) beat out the Mavericks (44-40) in the tougher West. Exciting.
Now the suggestion to solve this problem is usually to shorten the regular season because it's so meaningless, but the real solution is to make the regular year more important by not letting so many teams into the playoffs.
The supposed advantage of the current format, which has the best team in each conference playing the eighth best in the first round, the second against the seventh and so on, is that it supposedly gives underdog teams the chance to rise up and conquer their bettors in an exciting upset. But the thing is, it doesn't happen. Since the current playoff format began in the mid-'80s, eighth and seventh seeds have won six of 68 first-round series against first and second seeds. That's a winning percentage of .088 -- not even half as good as this year's woeful Los Angeles Clippers. A team that wins less than 9 percent of its games ought to be kicked out of the league, and the 7 and 8 seeds ought to be kicked out of the playoffs.
That leaves six teams in each conference. The top two should get a bye in the first round, giving the better teams in the league something to compete for: a week of rest at the start of the playoffs. The other four play each other (3 seed vs. 6, 4 vs. 5) in a best-of-three series.
That's right. Best of three. In the current best-of-five first-round format, a bad game here and there by a good team, or a good game by a bad team, doesn't mean that much. There's plenty of time for the favorite to overcome it and win the series. Favorites (seeds 1-4) have a first-round winning percentage of .743 in the current format. Discount the fourth seed, which has lost to the fifth seed 20 of 34 times, and the top three seeds have an .853 winning percentage. Not very competitive.
A best-of-three format in the opening round would encourage the stunning-upset factor that makes the NCAA Tournament so exciting. It also would cut about a week out of the playoffs (it really does take them two weeks to play those first five games), which isn't much, but at least a seven-week slog is better than an eight-week slog. If I really got my way, I'd say only the four division champs would make the playoffs, and we could cut straight to the semifinals. Four weeks of playoffs and it's on to summertime.
The current first round is potentially 40 games long (eight series, up to five games each). This year's lasted 34. My first round would max out at 12 games (four series, up to three games each). That would cost the league and TV networks money. But I'd argue that the increased interest in the more meaningful regular season and the streamlined playoffs would make up for it. I'd probably be wrong, but if I got my way you'd get more exciting basketball, and I'm OK with the NBA and the TV people paying a little bit for that.
Keep the game exciting: The final moments of a close hockey game are a frantic, exciting, white-knuckle thrill ride. The last minute of a close NBA game is about as dull an affair as American sports has to offer.
What's the difference? The basketball game turns into a seemingly endless succession of timeouts and free throws, basketball's least exciting play. Hockey has no comparably dull play, and teams are allowed only one timeout per period -- and time must already be stopped before they can call it.
The solution is obvious: Get rid of the timeouts and free throws and let 'em play basketball.
A team that's trailing late in the game will intentionally foul the other team, forcing them to shoot free throws, which may or may not result in points for the opponent, but will almost certainly get the team that's losing the ball back.
I would argue that if it becomes a good strategy to break a rule (in this case by committing a foul), the sanction for breaking that rule is not strong enough. So the punishment for committing a foul in the last few minutes should be made stronger: automatic points for the fouled team, plus the ball back, for example.
So how can a team that's losing get back in the game? Well, they'd benefit from my new rule: In the last two minutes of a half, the 24-second shot clock becomes a 10-second shot clock. There's no need to foul the other team if you're going to get the ball back within 10 seconds anyway, and think of the frantic action that would result, with both teams forced to race up the floor and shoot in a hurry. No standing around and watching the clock wind down.
And the timeouts? None in the last two minutes. Let the coaches do their coaching in practice, or at halftime. There's no reason grown men, the best in the world at what they do, have to stop and get a little lesson every six seconds from the coach when the game's on the line. The real reason timeouts are so numerous, of course, is so the TV networks can sell commercials. OK: They can have extra timeouts earlier in the game. But none during crunch time.
Speaking of timeouts, how about we ...
Get rid of the worst rule in sports: The New York Knicks won Game 7 of their second-round series against the Miami Heat thanks to a game-saving play by Latrell Sprewell. Did the athletic star hit a jump shot? Make a great pass? Steal the ball?
No, he called timeout as he was falling out of bounds with the ball, thus preventing a turnover. (Sprewell later modestly claimed that he hadn't committed the heroic feat of signalling for time, and replays showed the officials did err by awarding a timeout that hadn't been called for, but we can ignore that for this discussion.)
In the NBA, you can signal for a timeout in midair before you land out of bounds, or when you're surrounded by defenders in a corner, about to have the ball stolen. Imagine if a baserunner could call time just before being tagged out at third, or if a quarterback could call time just before getting sacked by a blitzing linebacker. It would be a joke, just as it is in basketball. You want to call timeout? You need to be in complete control of the ball and not in danger of losing it. There shouldn't be a panic button in basketball.
Swallow the whistles and let 'em play: Basketball fans were buzzing after Game 4 last week, a thriller that the Lakers won in overtime to take a 3-1 lead in the Finals. Workplaces throughout the land were no doubt filled with that sweetest of morning questions (in the workplace anyway): You see that game last night?
I saw it, and I kept thinking how exciting it could have been if there hadn't been a whistle every 20 seconds. For a while I tried counting how many times the ball went from one end of the floor to the other without play stopping. I never got higher than three. One team would come across the 10-second line and set up its half-court offense. "Here comes a foul," I'd say. "Tweet!" the refs would say, and someone would be called for some little insignificant shove 30 feet away from the ball.
Meanwhile, two behemoths in the low post can pound on each other like a couple of WWF wrestlers with nothing called. What's the rule here? What, exactly, is a foul?
Several times during Game 4, NBC announcer Doug Collins praised one player or another's ability to "create fouls." That is, the ability to get the officials to call a foul on the other team. We were treated to a shot of Reggie Miller of the Pacers trotting across the lane, purposely bumping lightly into a Laker, then acting like he'd been hit by a car -- his arms flailed, he reeled off-balance, pretending that it was all he could do to keep himself from doing a face-plant on the hardwood. Whistle. Foul on the Laker. "He's so good at that!" Collins marveled. "Hey, Dad," said wide-eyed youngsters in a million living rooms, "can we go out in the driveway so I can learn how to pretend to get fouled like Reggie Miller?"
It was inspiring stuff.
Eliminate foul trouble: You pay your money to see your favorite team, you go get your nachos and you're just settling into your seat when the star player picks up two quick fouls. Now he's got to go sit on the bench because he's in foul trouble. Back in the game in the second quarter, he picks up his third foul and then, just before the half, his fourth.
He sits for most of the third quarter, comes back into the game, commits his fifth foul and then, with two minutes to go, just as the teams are getting ready to battle it out to an exciting finish (my rule changes have been instituted, so the finish will be exciting), the star fouls out. He's played 27 minutes, and he won't be around for the finish, or for overtime. This is the guy you paid to see. Did you ever have the feeling you've been cheated?
What's the point of this rule? To prevent a goon-like player from spending the whole game blithely hacking away at the other team's star. But there are plenty of ways to punish a player who commits too many fouls without disqualifying him. Award the fouled team points, or an extra possession, or whatever. But don't force a guy -- who might be a goon but also might be the marquee player the fans came to see -- to sit idle.
The excitement at an NBA game doesn't come from the best players in the world shooting free throws or listening to the coach or sitting on the bench nursing foul trouble, it comes from them running up and down the hardwood and playing basketball. Why the NBA allows anything else to happen during a game is beyond me.