The 82-game NBA season has been in place since 1967-68, but has come under scrutiny recently, with the flames being stoked most notably by commissioner Adam Silver.
Silver is pushing for an in-season tournament to generate more interest and certainly more revenue. The tournament would lead to shortening the season.
But it seems he could be running the risk of devaluing the regular season by pressing for more incentivized games before the playoffs.
“I recognize that could always be a concern that people might take that from what I’ve said, I’m at least trying to send the opposite message,” Silver told Yahoo Sports at the Boys and Girls Club in San Francisco recently. “But I want to make sure people understand just like any other business, we’re constantly thinking about innovation. And we’re listening to our fans.”
Is it the chicken or the egg? The conversation has become so diluted it’s hard to say if the fans believe too many games don’t mean anything or if the players and teams behave as if 82 games is too many.
The messaging from plenty of league partners seems counterintuitive, and thus can send a message to the fans that’s then recycled and sent out into the Twittersphere. There’s no doubt some regular-season games mean more than others, but one wonders if the NBA could do a better job with its own messaging and packaging of the regular season.
“The last thing I’m trying to suggest is that we don’t value our current regular season, it’s enormously valuable,” Silver said. “These teams care a lot about home-court advantage, and people can’t get enough of NBA basketball.”
Even if the in-season tournament doesn’t come to fruition, will fans take that as a signal the league doesn’t value its own regular season?
Silver did make an important distinction, if the in-season tournament does become a reality: Fans will still be able to get that one-time-a-year visit from every player because the interconference schedule won’t change.
“If we did make modifications in the schedule, we’d always ensure that every team played each other at least once,” Silver said. “I think that’s critically important. Everybody wants to see, even if it’s a cross-country trip, that wherever that player is on that team that plays in the other conference, they should have the opportunity to see that player at least once.”
He wants to create new traditions, but that takes time; the more accurate indicator of success will likely be TV revenue.
“And then the question is, will that create some additional fan interest? If there’s some games that have particular interest during the course of the season, and guys feel they’re playing set for something?” Silver said.
“And lastly, I’ll say I recognize that [if] we do that, it’s not going to be an overnight success. Because the obvious question, whether it’s from the players or for the fans will be, ‘What? Why should we think this is meaningful? Playing in-season tournaments?’ My response is going to be, ‘I get that.’ But I think we can create new traditions, obviously, things change over time. And so that's something I'm very focused on right now.”
With the additions in sports science and the general innovation Silver referenced, today’s players have far more advantages than generations past: better travel and training, more rest and the most efficient recovery methods.
Lost in that is the element of the NBA season being an intentional marathon and a game of attrition. It’s been woven into the fabric of the NBA for as long as anyone can remember. The champions often have a mix of health, youth and experience fostered over 82-game seasons, and knowing how to manage.
The prospect of taking that element away seems to rip at the fabric of a critical element.
“The fact that teams are focused on load management and players are resting, that sends a message in its own right,” Silver said. “And I’m saying we’re paying attention to that, and want to make sure that the number of games we’re playing isn’t just a result of the fact that that’s what we’ve been doing for 50 years.”
Silver said he’s “taking a fresh look” at things and it’s held true to varying degrees of success. The play-in tournament produced great matchups last year and keeps intrigue for more teams late in the season. He also amended the 2-3-2 NBA Finals setup created by his predecessor, the late David Stern, reimplementing the 2-2-1-1-1 as soon as he took office, beginning in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Because of the playoffs being affected by injuries to key players — something that’s happened virtually every year of the NBA’s existence — there’s been a push to shorten the season. Silver thought last year’s truncated season answered that question, but it still persists.
“Last season, entirely because of COVID issues which compressed the schedule, we played 72 games,” Silver said. “I thought that was a pretty good answer for all those people who said we’d reduce injuries by playing 10 fewer games, that was quickly forgotten.”
There’s an element the NBA can’t control, either. The age of specialization among the youth means more pressure is put on prospective players’ bodies at a younger age. AAU weekends have players playing multiple times a day, along with round-the-clock activities from personal trainers, which didn’t exist as much in other eras.
The clock on the human body doesn’t magically start once someone enters the NBA, and during offseasons, there are plenty of videos of players getting in runs at local gyms across the country.
The phrase “basketball never stops” exists for a reason.
“Of course, if a player is not on the floor, that reduces the chance the player is going to get injured, but there was no data that demonstrated a shorter season meant that over the course of the year, we would have fewer injuries,” Silver said. “So that was an important message in its own right.”