The Goal: Making April Games Matter

It is the elephant in the room, the dirty little secret and the problem child packed off to boarding school about whom little is spoken. It typically rears its head in the final weeks of the regular season, although innovative San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich broke it out way back in November this season.

It is the tendency of NBA teams to rest and tank late each season, usually one or the other but with largely similar results.

Teams near the top of the standings do it, especially those locked or nearly so into their playoff position, as a way to boost their primary contributors’ energy and overall condition heading into the postseason. Teams near the bottom do it, too, to increase their lottery odds for higher draft position. It makes for anticlimactic games in late March or April matchups that, on paper, looked like showdowns but in reality unspool like shutdowns.

LeBron James played once in Miami’s first five games after its 27-game winning streak was snapped in Chicago 10 days ago. The same with Dwyane Wade. Popovich has his finger on the Spurs’ pulse. sitting out players as needed because what begins two weeks from now is more important than what’s happening now. The NBA doesn’t like it but — unless it senses a coach is rubbing the practice in the league’s face the way Popovich was deemed to have done with San Antonio’s ghost flight to Miami — doesn’t do much about it.

Meanwhile, the value of tickets to those games go down. So does the experience of targeting a visit by the Heat, the Lakers or the Thunder to see a marquee player, only to (maybe) see the fellow in street clothes and fashion eyeglasses. We live in a caveat emptor world, sure, but much of this flows from the NBA’s priorities — the playoffs matter, April less so — as put out there by the league itself.

Can nothing be done? Well, here are a few possible fixes:

Shorten the regular season. Spread the games out and cut back to 72. Or 70. Or 66 like the 2011-12 post-lockout schedule. Plenty of coaches and players felt that number of games was about right, if only they hadn’t been scrunched together in a span of four months. The prospect of this happening, of course, is nil — each game night is an earning opportunity and everyone involved, especially players and owners, would end up taking a haircut if revenues took a hit.

Count April games double in terms of playoff positioning or tiebreakers. Or more precisely, since not all teams play the same number of games in April, weight the final 20 games of everyone’s schedule heavier in terms of impact on the above. It might require a points system similar to the NHL’s but coaches might think twice about sitting out players if a loss that night enabled a rival to close not by one game but two in the standings.

Stick a week of R&R in between the regular season and the postseason. Instead of rest and recreation, NBA players would use it as rehab and recovery from the grind and demands of the 82-game schedule. The healthier among them could simply catch their breaths. With a week’s gap, there would be less value in or need for skipped games in early or mid April. No one loses any earning dates but everyone gets a rest. It wouldn’t hurt marketability any more than the NFL’s weeks between game (and double that prior to the Super Bowl).

Which of these options might work best and minimize the NBA’s number of starless nights? Discuss among yourselves.

34 Comments

  1. ill says:

    This is one of the smartest article ever posted. Sure we know it’s all about money in this Ball industry. 82 regular season games obviousely it’s too much! And the last games of the season are not interesting at all fot the top team only! But the teams that needs secure their playoffs against the teams just behind fighting for the 7th or 8th spot have to fight for real till the end. Since it’s all about money and the players health only the players could have an efficient discussion with the league owners and figure out how to make it better for both and for the fans.
    They could also think about shorten the playoffs with only 3 games win and keep the 7 games win for the Conference finals and the Nba finals. So many options. But once more it’s all about money in here.

  2. sanjay says:

    truncating this never ending 82 season is the best option including 2 weeks of solid rest after regular season!
    I rather watch quality 66 games rather than diluted teams playing 82 games like they are doing now!
    And the organisation of round robin league is also so cliched( 1 facing 8 etc).
    There is no X factor in the competition at all.

    And also raise the height of the hoop( it is way toooooooooooooo low). The guys are pushing 7 feet and are dunking without even a jump which is ridiculous!

    The new guy coming inn after david sterns exit, could do it. But would he?

  3. Hannes says:

    Give us the ‘entertaining as hell’ tournament!
    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/070411

  4. aeon says:

    Shortening the regular season seems like a good idea.
    It limits the necessity to rest players before the playoffs since they simply won’t be as exhausted after playing, for example, a 66 game schedule.
    And not only that, it also limits tanking late in the season to a certain extent. If the season is only 66 games long, the last, say 10 games, can have a bigger impact on the standings than in an 82 game season.

  5. ism says:

    Shortening the season to 72 games – OK.
    But making April games count more – No way!
    The whole schedule is tough enough as it is! Some rest and less meaningful games do not bother me at all, in fact they are a welcome break before the playoffs make the temperature rise.
    Unlike in other sports, a lot of NBA-games are like training games. Teams getting better, trying to find their rhythm, changing their lineups… these things happen in all sports, but in the NBA, the time spent with real training is lower in comparison, so a lot of things have to be figured out in real games. Bottom line: some games that don’t matter as much are normal in this sport and do not make it less interesting. There are enough highlight matchups and big games, no matter if before, during, or after the regular season.

  6. Rico says:

    It is boring except for 3 teams. Dallas Mavericks, LA Lakers and Utah Jazz :)

  7. filipvb says:

    Make the April games results count also for the next season, do not count the April games for the lottery.

  8. GCast says:

    So why is Coach Spo not getting fined for doing a number of games already what Pop did with San Antonio (once). He’s clearly resting his stars. Paging David Stern.

  9. Miggs23 says:

    I agree with maybe shortening the pre-season or giving a week break after the regular season but that’s about it. It’s ridiculous to ask teams and players to shorten the season. No one is going to want to take the pay cut. I mean, would you agree if your employer tells you that he will shorten your work year by two weeks so you can get more rest and just cut your pay? (Oops!, that’s what the Federal Gov is doing I guess do why not the NBA?). It is also ridiculous to make the last month be worth more points. Why reward teams that peaked late over teams that worked hard and play consistently great all season? It is also ridiculous to say that teams resting players at the end of the season lead to lower ticket prices. A team like the Heat already fetches some of the highest ticket prices on the league for most of the regular season games. Why? Because they are a great team that plays so much above the competition that they can secure home court in the eastern conference with 10 games to go. Do whatever discount you may need to give to fans because you are resting one or two marquee players now, you more than made for it in revenue and thrills throughout the previous 70 games by putting on a show night in and night out. (Plus the LBJ and DW were injured, not just plainly being rested). As for teams that “tank”, I really don’t see many. Do you really see teams in the bottom of the standings loosing games at a higher rate than they did on the rest of the season? I don’t think so. Some teams, like the wizards, are playing the best basketball they played all season standings not withstanding. It’s called pride. So at the end, the season will play itself out in the natural order of things. There’s nothing we can do about it but wait for the playoffs to begin and let it play itself out.

  10. Arky says:

    If you shorten the season, the last one or two weeks is still “maintenance program” time (it happened in the lockout season too).

    Even if you add a week off, teams will rest players. It’s as much about avoiding new injuries as it is about rehabbing old ones.

    This is not a bad thing. We have a couple of weeks where a few teams are resting stars (and which allow for bench players to shine, as we’ve seen with the return of Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis for Miami recently) to help make sure the stars are healthy for the playoffs. That’s a trade-off I’m happy to make.

    Making games at the end count double is no good because teams have different strengths of schedule. It would also potentially just move the “maintenance program” time to the week or two before “double points month” began. Also, it’s a cheap gimmick.

    I like the idea of having a wildcard playoff for 8th seed in each conference where teams 8, 9, 10 and 11 hold a mini knockout tournament. That creates a few days off for seeds 1-7 (so they maaaay need to rest guys less) and also gives the teams on the fringes of the playoffs a reason to keep fighting and not sit all their guys and tank. Wouldn’t it be great to see this Washington team with John Wall get a chance to sneak into the playoffs? Give the Bucks an incentive to fight for 7th so they don’t need to survive the tournament to be in the playoffs? Even give a team like Sacramento an incentive to keep fighting so they can get into 11th and have a run at the wildcard. Give guys like Dirk, Aldridge, Lillard the chance to take on the Lakers in a winner-makes-the-playoffs battle royale? I’d love to see that!

    • NY says:

      I completely agree, this was well thought out. I especially like the wild card that way teams will fight to get an opportunity like you said. Even the sorry teams have devoted fans (some more than others) but it would be good for the teams and the NBA if the got to see real competition even though they didn’t get a playoff berth. Imagine how many teams shut some of there best players down for the season when playoff hopes die. In this case maybe Kevin Love and Andersen Varejo come back and give their fans a thrill ride to see if they can get the wild card.

  11. MGM Larry says:

    move the all star games right nefore playoffs AND give a week rest before playoff starts. Or option 3.

  12. Albion says:

    IDK if it gon’ be 66, or 82 games but I know one thing! KNICKS 2012-13′ CHAMPS!!!

    WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOO!

  13. MF says:

    Shrink the playoff bracket. The reason the regular season “doesn’t matter” is because you only need a slightly above average season to make the playoffs most years. Back before baseball got infected by a large playoff tournament the regular season was itself the deciding factor in who got to play for a championship which makes a hell of a lot more sense than using a bunch of compressed 7-game series to decide it.

  14. John says:

    A 10 day period of R&R before the playoffs seems fair to everyone and is very realistic as well.

  15. Andrew says:

    A week off (or 2) at the end of the season is a great idea but it won’t solve the problem for teams tanking. Maybe they should put the all star game earlier to say mid January and give the teams another week off in early March?

  16. Jeff says:

    baseball and basketball both have ridiculously long seasons. butt the length will never be reduced. greedy owners and league.

  17. thundla says:

    Incentives of the court.
    Maybe luxury-tax relief you could earn during the last 10 Games. If you win, you get relief. The playoff teams will still rest players, but the bad teams might try to win for saving money down the road.
    Maybe pay more for players and teams out of league pockets.

    We are talking about a common problem in all sports with long seasons, be it NBA, MLB, soccer in Europe. Once the standings are relatively clear and the middle is set, teams with no opportunities left are playing with less effort.

    One solution we have in soccer in Europe:
    You can be relegated to a minor league if you finish below the line. In the Bundesliga two teams are brought down to Liga 2, one team gets a Playoff with the third team of Liga 2. That way nobody tanks games on purpose because of the fear of being relegated.
    You could do that with the D-League…

  18. thundla says:

    Incentives of the court.
    Maybe luxury-tax relief you could earn during the last 10 Games. If you win, you get relief. The playoff teams will still rest players, but the bad teams might try to win for saving money down the road.
    Maybe pay more for players and teams out of league pockets.

    We are talking about a common problem in all sports with long seasons, be it NBA, MLB, soccer in Europe. Once the standings are relatively clear and the middle is set, teams with no opportunities left are playing with less effort.

    One solution we have in soccer in Europe:
    You can be relegated to a minor league if you finish below the line. In the Bundesliga two teams are brought down to Liga 2, one team gets a Playoff with the third team of Liga 2. That way nobody tanks games on purpose because of the fear of being relegated.
    You could do that with the D-League…

  19. Kasper says:

    Here is my solution:

    The DRAFT LOTTERY: Teams that do not make the playoff get a more equal chance. Teams who finish 9-12 are given one lottery number number, while teams finishing 13-15, are given 2 numbers, which total 20 numbers. No need for 1001 combinations.

    The PLAYOFFS: Teams that have homecourtadvantage, DO INDEED HAVE HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE: In the 1st round: A 3-1 homecourtadvantage, meaning the higher seeded team plays 3 home games for every home game the lower seeded team plays. In the 2nd round of the playoffs: A 2-1 advantage. In the conference finals and the NBA finals: 2-3-2 (as in the Finals)

  20. Benjie says:

    So silly ideas .to tell you all even if they shorten the number of games ,if the strongest team got the 27 winning streak and ending up the number one seed overall by way margin,they will always sit there best players in the last regular season cause they could afford to lose some games and it wouldn’t affect there standings.So these idea is nonsense…..

  21. JohnDoe says:

    Just watch OKC, Lakers and Utah. They don’t rest or their games still matter :P

  22. GuitarAttack says:

    If they cut down the number of games, teams are likely to do the same resting of their stars unless winning such remaining games is crucial to their standings. The best solution IMHO is to give everybody a 10-day rest in between regular season and playoffs. Get everybody fresh, and also shortens the off-season, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. Option #3 is both viable and fair.

  23. jake s. says:

    Pop and spoelsta resting players has nothing to do with physicality. It only has to do with mentality. Anyone who thinks these players are actually injured has a lot of reality to face.

  24. JKey says:

    Would be happy if they cut the season by 12 games or so, but still have it spread over the usual period of time. Gives players a chance to recoup between games and not force players into early retirement through injuries.

    I also don’t see anything wrong with resting James and Wade. Why not take the advantage your team has and rest those guys for the playoffs? Sure they are very fortunate to have the likes of Wade, Bosh and James to play at high levels in the season and the playoffs. It’s almost the same as tanking, but the other way.

    • Dave Snavely says:

      Although doubtful either will happen, I would propose either of the following:

      – If a team sits their ‘injured’ starters in last 10 games of the season that player would need to miss a corresponding number of playoff games.

      – for games that are on national or regional televesion, the team would be responsible for reimbursing the league for any decrease in TV ratings for what they likely would have been had the star players played. Perfect example, was last week’s Heat vs Knicks game. My son and I were excited to watch this game, but when we found out James and Wade weren’t playing, we didn’t even bother watching it.

      Let’s face it, as a general rule, peolple watch the NBA for the stars, not beceause they are Heat fans per se.

  25. Jorge says:

    While it may be true that the games are not as interesting as in the middle of the season, it is absurd to pretend to force players to play for something that offers no real reward. Take the Heat for example, they have had a guarantee of home court advantage through the East Finals, they had it in the bag with over 10 games left, what would the motivation be for this team to play at “play-off level”? Nothing, really, other than having Finals Home Court Advantage. Similarly, if you are last seed in the East (Bucks) and find that you would have a similar chance vs either 1st or 2nd seed, then why would you try too hard at the end of the season?

    The only way this is going to change is if somehow everything was decided at the end, but then you would lessen the importance of the middle of the season games. All in all, once a team has its fate decided, they should act for the best of their own team (be it rest their stars, start thinking about rebuilding, try role players testing for what next season might be, etc.) If anything, I admire coach Popovich for being one of the few to openly make basketball decisions regardless of what the league front office threatens with. He pushes the envelope by making sound basketball-management decisions, like resting older stars or competing with a different rotation (trying new things) in games that he has considered as a reasonable loss (like resting his stars in his @Miami game.)

    Giving more rest time will not change the fact that once the season is defined for a team, the sound administrative/basketball decision may not be to play full strength at the end. Unless you add incentives to winning more games, or discourage loosing teams from keeping on loosing you will not have a change on this. If you reward loosing teams with better chances at the lottery if they just throw games, why should they play harder? If there is no benefit on winning more games for a team that is already sitting at the top, why should they play as hard? Even if games are not as flashy and outcomes are all but predetermined, it boils down to “what are the rewards for playing harder in any given game?” if the answer is “none” then do not expect it to happen. Yes, fans are important, yes, they support the league, yes, fans may grow disinterested if the level of play is not what they expect but at the end of the day, the team’s success is measured by their performance in the Play-Offs OR in how they are rebuilding/managing the future of the franchise.

  26. mark says:

    I disagree with all 3 options. The presaeson should be shortened and the regulsr season should be lengthened so that there is no need for any back to back games whatsoever. What leads to fatigue and injury is 4 games in 5 nights. Without these there is no need to rest players.

    When one playoff series ends much sooner than another, people complain that the team that ended early gets too much rest and gets rusty. So, rest at the end isn’t the answer either, but a reasonable schedule throughout the season is the answer.

    I wonder how many injuries would have been avoided if there wasn’t back to backs (Rose last year, Galinari this year perhaps). Another benefit of no back to backs would be that players like Royce White wouldn’t have to fly if they didn’t want to.

  27. Dino4life says:

    Only the 3rd option is viable, the players like their money just like all of us, the owners are only in it for the money, so cutting the 82 games is not gonna happen EVER, maybe starting the season 1 month earlier and spread out the back to backs but thats it. i think i read somewhere that 1 game is 2 million dollars for the league.
    The point system is not gonna work, the reason it exists in the NHL is because you can tie (at least you could before the new rules) and they needed someway to reward a TIE more then a Loss. now that you cant tie in the NHL anymore its more likely they loose the point system rather then the NBA adopt it. Imagine it NBA gave 2 points for games in April, then everytime the Lakers, heat, or Knicks would face the Bobcats or Suns in april, imagine the Outroar of how biases the league is towards big market teams. Even if the league plays it fair, having the power to manipulate end of season standings is not a good thing for anyone.
    and the Last option, honestly i dont see Why not ? maybe fill it with Rookie Sophmore game and contests, maybe workout a deal with the NCAA to move back the tournement by a week, and move forward the end of season by a Week, so Final Four and Black Monday fall during that week break, THAT WAY BASKETBALL IN GENERAL WINS.

  28. steppx says:

    Injuries are often the result of fatigue.- The season is too long, and thats almost something that cant be argued with. IF corporate owners and dirt bags like david stern dont care about health and only profit, then sure, it wont change. But truth is, the ticket buyers to april games between the Kings and Suns should get refunds, unless you enjoy watching michael beasley launch 60 ft pull up Js and DeMarcus Cousins scowl at people in the front row while kendall marshall tries learning to shoot. Its HORRIBLE………..ugly ugly ugly. Its pointless and it ends up hurting the image of the league, something Stern might want to think about, except I suspect he’s senile.

  29. LabMonkey says:

    I like R&R, it looks like the most honest way to deal with this situation! Great article!

  30. Jim says:

    Obviously only the last one is viable but when should one week of rest be placed?Maybe the all star weekend will have to be moved to early february so this extra week could start in mid-late march.

  31. sanjay says:

    this has been the one of the most boring late march and april season. 82 games are one too many and easily 10 to 15 games are going with no marquee players!
    The season has to be truncated and 2 weeks rest must be given before play off start. One week rest is too short to rejuvenate! The second option is way too complicated.
    The NBA is too short sighted and adamant to do anything about it.

    Barring 3 teams fighting for 7 and 8 th spot on west coast. Rest of all the matches are so boring to watch with totally lopsided team strengths!
    the time is not far away when march and april will have only empty stands and no tv sponsorship either!
    at this rate it will happen sooner than later!