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NBA: 16 Game Season

“The season is too long”

“DNP-Rest is killing the product”

“I don’t pay to watch the Santa Cruz Warriors” 

“Jordan never took games off”

A little tired of the continual drumbeat of complaints the 82 game season causes? Lately, I can’t stop thinking about what would happen if the league decided to go the other way entirely – too  few games. Instead, how about this: Erase everything you know about the NBA schedule, seeding and playoffs and replace it with the NFL model. Games don’t start mattering until Christmas? Quite the contrary. Every. Game. Matters. As we eclipsed the 20% mark of the NBA season, I wanted to analyze it as if we were already done with the regular season when teams reached 16 games played. Recently, the league came out with a modified schedule proposal that could drop the season to 78 games. To call this a half-measure, would be like calling trimming the toenails of a grizzly bear a half-measured safety precaution. Dropping four games realistically does nothing to change the impact of each night of ball. Removing four games will not sniff the surface of eliminating the two biggest issues with the longer season: DNP-Rest and not having every game matter. Let’s set aside for the moment all of the issues and scheduling imbalances that would be at play here in this extremely condensed 16 game season and recap the already completed(!) NBA season.

Final Standings

What a fun year! Luka went berserk. Hollywood is so back. Giannis is somehow even better. The Celtics thrived despite losing Horford and Kyrie. Siakim made the leap – again! MVP race would have been a TIGHT one. LeBron? Luka? Harden? Tough to really go wrong. 

Perhaps surprisingly, I do not see many glaring omissions from this extremely abbreviated 16 game season. I would even argue that the 6 (remember – NFL format) best teams from each conference are, in fact, represented here in the playoffs. Aside from the Warriors (massive injury problems) and Portland, the 12 playoff teams feel very much like something we would’ve anticipated before the year, and still expect to see at the end. Dallas is maybe the one surprise team who has taken advantage of GS and POR early season scuffles.

The first round playoff byes are a great wrinkle that would be implemented with the NFL format. The top two seeds are 76-4 in round one over the past 20 seasons. They almost always whitewash their opponents in rapid succession. Do we have to put ourselves through those series? Do we need to have 53% of the league qualify for the postseason? The byes also give teams added incentive to go and get those top seeds as they have the lucrative carrot dangling in front of them — sitting out round one while their opponents go to battle.

Of course, the NBA would never use just a 16 game season. It sounds rather absurd to even say aloud. But if you would allow it, take a quick ride on this cloud with me – wouldn’t it be fun?! Think of how amped you would be for every game. Six days to get crazy about a marquee matchup. You would have hyping, and overhyping every game to the maximum. You know how many players would have rested for load management? I’m going to say somewhere around zero (okay, maybe the final game). I’m not sure too many teams would be tanking as they would have to tell their stars they have to sit over 10% of the season if they even missed just two games.

Obviously, the DNP-rests that have occurred this season so far would have been avoided had teams known 16 games was their full season. Also, players could and likely would have performed better with a week or so of rest before every game, so I am not suggesting this 16 game snapshot that played out would replicate an actual planned one. 

However, one thing I learned, or recognized to its full extent through this exercise, is that maybe early season games do matter. I mean how many of these 12 teams do you expect will not be making the playoffs? Likely they will all be playing in late April. 

Of course if we extend out to the “standard” 16 teams we have Orlando and Brooklyn making it in the East (both preseason playoff favorites) and Phoenix and Minnesota in the West (pretty large surprises). The bottom of the West is perhaps the most volatile positions for the rest of the year as Portland is probably penciled in for most likely team to climb back in the top 8. Then, the final team is anyone’s guess between PHX, MIN, SAC, NOP and SAS. 

Ultimately, I don’t actually want to slash 66 games off of the NBA season. I just like basketball too much. Fortunately for me, that would never happen. I do think the league should look at a much more drastic reduction in games, though. 

The league schedule I’d like most is to play 60 games. You face each team twice and then two extra games either against teams that are your caliber from the prior year (NFL does this) or simply two “rival” teams or teams nearby in geography. I don’t think an 82-game season is necessary to parse out which teams are the best, especially when you are going to have a seven-game series to decide who ultimately is better right after the season anyway. 

As many have stated, 82 is already extremely arbitrary and does not give a balanced schedule of opponents. It also requires back-to-backs, where many players plan out in advance that they are just not going to play. The league lacks true “appointment television” in their current iteration of the league schedule, considering if you miss a game, no sweat – you can catch them in two days again. Fewer games would make each individual game a little more meaningful to the season and perhaps become more of a must-see moment. Although we will never see them go fully to this NFL model, I think it would be a wildly fun experiment, perhaps only suitable for the NBA 2K franchise.

Sam Johnson

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