Pretend the NBA season was a television series. Does it feel like one with few stakes until the final episodes — the postseason — where suddenly everything matters?
Because the league hasn’t hooked many potential viewers during the regular season, might they bypass the postseason, skipping the end of the series because they missed the preceding episodes? In great dramas, a scene builds on the previous scene until the series reaches its climax. In a normal 82-game regular season, does game 43 build on game 42?
Your answers almost certainly would displease the NBA’s brain trust. Herein lies the conundrum the league wrestles with — it isn’t drawing enough eyeballs. Although streaming complicates the matter, the NBA’s TV ratings have dropped by 25% from two years ago and younger viewers aren’t watching on television. How can the league bake drama into its season as a whole, and not suddenly stumble upon intrigue in the postseason?
Because of its short season, the NFL regularly produces must-watch television. Every week’s slate features games brimming with narrative tension, and as the season proceeds, the stakes crescendo. When the NFL playoffs start, the drama erupts. The NBA, however, needs a long season to ensure everyone — the players, owners, league, broadcast partners — financially benefits. The NBA has failed to replicate that magic, although the play-in tournament did stimulate the end-of-season competition as intended. The NBA can manufacture the drama the NFL season accomplishes naturally through an innovative season structure.
“We’re always looking at ways to innovate our season structure and format to increase fan engagement and the quality of the competition throughout the standings,” said Evan Wasch, executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics for the NBA. “We certainly view the play-in tournament as one way to accomplish this, but there are many other ideas out there that we continue to evaluate, including possible in-season tournaments or other changes to the regular season, playoff qualification or playoff structure.”
Here’s my path forward for the 2022-23 season.
First, trim the season from 82 games
Reduce the season to 72 games. Split the season into four quarter-seasons, 18 games each.
After the first quarter-season, the eight teams in each conference with the best records play in a single-elimination tournament. The winner of the West and East tournaments receives a guaranteed playoff spot, plus the right to pick its matchup in the first round of the playoffs with home-court advantage (unless that team chooses an opponent three or more games above in the final regular-season standings).
After the second quarter-season, the eight teams in each conference with the best record spanning just those 18 games play in a single-elimination tournament. Previous tournament winners won’t compete in subsequent tournaments. The two winners per conference receive the same rewards outlined above.
This repeats after the third quarter-season.
After the fourth quarter-season — the end of the regular season — the teams with the best three records over the span of the entire season in each conference that haven’t won a quarter-season tournament make the playoffs. Thus, after the regular season ends, six teams in each conference have received playoff spots — the three tournament winners and the other three teams with the best overall records.
In each conference, the next two teams with the best records, essentially the seventh and eighth seeds, play one game for the seventh playoff spot. The ninth seed plays the 10th seed for the right to play the loser of the 7 vs. 8 matchup for the last playoff spot.
All of the games created by this format would use the Elam Ending that the NBA employs for the All-Star Game.
Among the three teams in each conference that have won the right to pick their playoff opponents, the team with the best regular-season record chooses first, so on and so forth.
After the first round of the playoffs concludes, eight teams will remain, four per conference. Among the remaining teams, the team in each conference with the best regular-season record gets to choose its opponent from among the two remaining seeds with the worst regular-season records. The other two teams, of course, will play each other. Home-court advantage for that series is determined by regular-season record.
How might this season have played out if this structure was in Place?
The current NBA season’s standings fell this way:
|Philadelphia 76ers||Utah Jazz|
|Brooklyn Nets||Phoenix Suns|
|Milwaukee Bucks||Denver Nuggets|
|New York Knicks||Los Angeles Clippers|
|Atlanta Hawks||Dallas Mavericks|
|Miami Heat||Portland Trail Blazers|
|Boston Celtics||Los Angeles Lakers|
|Washington Wizards||Golden State Warriors|
|Indiana Pacers||Memphis Grizzlies|
|Charlotte Hornets||San Antonio Spurs|
|Chicago Bulls||New Orleans Pelicans|
|Toronto Raptors||Sacramento Kings|
|Cleveland Cavaliers||Minnesota Timberwolves|
|Orlando Magic||Oklahoma City Thunder|
|Detroit Pistons||Houston Rockets|
Let’s say that the first, third and fifth seeds in both conferences won the three automatic playoff spots: 76ers, Bucks and Hawks in the East and the Jazz, Nuggets and Mavericks in the West. The next three teams in the playoffs would be the Nets, Knicks and Heat in the East and the Suns, Clippers and Blazers in the West.
After the 72-game regular season, the league would host a play-in tournament that’s exactly like what’s in place now. In this season’s play-in tournament, Celtics and Wizards won in the East and Lakers and Grizzlies in the West.
After the teams who won the right to pick their first-round opponents have done so, the playoffs might have looked like this:
|Celtics vs. 76ers||Grizzlies vs. Jazz|
|Wizards vs. Bucks||Blazers vs. Nuggets|
|Knicks vs. Hawks||Lakers vs. Mavericks|
|Heat vs. Nets||Clippers vs. Suns|
The remaining two teams of course play each other, and the team with the better record earns home-court advantage.
more at stake during the Regular Season
This format heightens the stakes of the regular season. Each game during the first three quarter-seasons carries added importance — teams will fight to make the tournament to win a guaranteed playoff spot and home-court advantage in the first round. One loss might separate a team making the tournament from one watching it on television. One win could mean an easier path. The games at the end of each quarter-season become incredibly critical must-watch games. Structuring the season this way recreates what works well for the NFL: a season with fewer games that increases their importance, followed by a single-elimination tournament that crowns a winner.
Quarter-season and play-in tournaments promise to generate enormous interest since fans best experience basketball through high-stakes, win-or-go-home games. This format gifts the league 46 of them.
Moreover, the feeling of hopelessness that hangs over many fan bases after the first weeks nearly disappears under this format — a team that starts poorly can find its rhythm, qualify for a later quarter-season tournament, and win a playoff spot.
This format gives the league a narrative arc, where each game builds off of the last, gives the league appointment-viewing television events, quarter-season and play-in tournaments, and infuses real stakes into regular-season games.
Death lies at the center of any great drama. Sometimes the death is literal — the soldier who knows death might arrive anytime. Other times the death is figurative — the man who fears he might lose his soul mate and a lifetime of love. But the specter of death gives meaning to a story. The NBA regular season features little in the way of figurative death. Few if any losses during the regular season sit with fans for a week, meaning few if any wins fill fans with joy for a week. Without the specter of agony and jubilation, the NBA season will forever fail to meet its entertainment potential.
The NBA has far fewer consumers than it deserves. It’s a problem.
You’ve read the solution.