The Grueling NBA Season
As the 2019 National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals drew to a close, the Golden State Warriors looked more like a MASH unit than an NBA team. The two most celebrated injuries were to star players Kevin Durant (ruptured Achilles) and Klay Thompson (ACL tear). Kevon Looney, who had a cartilage tear in the chest, and Demarcus Cousins, who was recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon last year and a torn quadriceps injury at the beginning of the playoffs, were playing with significant injuries. There were also lesser injuries such as Andre Iguodala’s lower leg injury and Stephen Curry’s dislocated finger.
Although the Warriors fought hard, in the end, it was the Toronto Raptors who were victorious. The Raptors were a fine team and deserving of the title. Their combination of a tough inside game and sharp three-point shooters was impressive and Kawhi Leonard is certainly one of the best in the game.
Although the Raptors are a talented team, it is at least unclear to me if they would have won the series had Klay Thompson been healthy the entire series, to say nothing about Kevin Durant. However, this is not about dissecting the Finals series and the what ifs that could have changed the outcome. This is about a larger issue in the NBA which I believe is a major cause for the Warriors being where they were at the end of the season, a tired, injured, and ultimately beaten team.
During the 2018-2019 season, Warrior’s head coach Steve Kerr often talked about the toll that the long season has taken on the team. The Warriors had been in five straight Finals series, which means they have played in excess of 100 games in each of those seasons. This toll is both physical and mental. Kerr has also mentioned that due to all these long seasons, the team needs a break from each other.
In those five years that the Warriors advanced to the finals, they won three times. It could be argued that the two times they lost that injuries and fatigue were the cause. In the 2015-2016 season, the Warriors posted the best regular season record in history. However, Kerr would probably admit that chasing that regular season record left the team tired and ultimately injured by the time they reached the Finals. Of course, the above described injuries were major obstacles to overcome and at least some of these injuries likely were a result of all the games the team had played over the last five years.
The NBA begins its regular season in mid-October and it does not finish until almost mid-April. The playoffs then run into mid-June for the teams that make the finals. That is essentially an eight-month season for the teams that reach the Finals. This is in contrast to the NFL season which is five months (September thru January), including the playoffs. The Major League Baseball season is seven months (April thru October) including the playoffs.
Why have such a long season? In the NBA, which is a league that is dominated by its superstar players, it rarely takes long for the better teams to show their superiority. By mid-season or certainly after two thirds of the season, all the top seeds have secured playoff spots. By that time, the general public is already anticipating a Finals matchup with usually no more than about four or five teams capable of reaching the Finals.
The remaining one-third to half of the regular season is only necessary to determine which of the lower seeds will make the playoffs. And there are a lot of teams that make the playoffs. A total of 16 teams (8 from each conference) make the playoffs, which represents 53.3 % of the teams in the league. A six-month regular season eliminates only 14 of the 30 teams.
Then comes a long four-round, 16-team playoff, with all series being best of seven. Is it really necessary? In the last 30 years, only one team seeded lower than a third seed (there are eight seeds in each conference) has ever won the title (1995 Houston Rockets) and only two teams (1995 Rockets and 1999 NY Knicks) have made it to the finals. The lower seeds essentially never win.
In contrast to MLB, only 33.3 % of the teams make the playoffs. In the NFL, it is 37.5 %. (The NFL is expanding its playoffs starting this 2020 season.)
Over that same 30-year period in the MLB, seven wild card teams (fourth seed or lower) have won the World Series and 13 wild card teams have advanced to the World Series. In the NFL, seven wild card teams have won the Super Bowl and 10 have made it to the Super Bowl.
The long seasons have recently become an issue in all sports, but if there is one sport where the long season is especially unnecessary, it is in the NBA. In MLB and the NFL, fewer teams make the playoffs, so the playoff spots are more coveted. Unlike the NBA, the lower seeds that make the playoffs actually have a chance to win. In those other sports, it makes more sense to have a longer season to weed out the pretender from the contender. But in the NBA, where virtually any team with an above .500 record makes the playoffs, there are always a lot of pretenders in the playoffs.
In the NBA, the top teams have to endure a long season and then they have to turn around and beat the same teams that they beat in the regular season again in the playoffs. As history has shown, they almost always beat those teams, but it doesn’t come without a cost. And this cost is greater every year as the players are getting bigger, stronger, and quicker. Players like Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons are the size of the centers on teams in the past. But these players can play any position on the court including point guard. With bigger and faster players, physics will tell you that the collisions become more violent and the chances of injury are increased.
Recently, the NBA discussed the possibility of reducing the regular season schedule, which is a hopeful sign that the league acknowledges the problem. Although there still may be a number of options being considered, the most talked about proposal would be to reduce the regular season from 82 to 78 games. The league would then add an in-season tournament as well as a play-in tournament at the end of the season for the lowest seeds.
This proposed change seems to be attempting to liven up the long regular season for the fans by replacing some regular season games with in-season tournaments. However, the length of the regular season also presents issues for the players in that it increases the chance of injury and causes both mental and physical fatigue. This change doesn’t seem to be reducing the number of games played significantly and therefore is not addressing the player’s needs.
Based on the results over the last 30 years, the NBA could probably eliminate approximately one-third of the regular season and cut the playoff field to 12 or even 8 teams and the results as to which teams would go deep into the playoffs would not change. If that change were to be made, you would have the top teams healthier and less fatigued when they would meet in the playoffs. This would make for more compelling playoffs rather than having them often become a battle won by attrition.
Because money is the driving force in sports today, the thought of reducing the length of a season is almost unthinkable. However, the NBA is facing the growing reality that, in the eyes of both the fans and the players, the long season is unnecessary. The top seeds play a lot of meaningless games at the end of the season, where they are just going through the motions and trying to avoid injuries. Even for the lower seeds that are fighting for playoffs spots, it seems to be becoming more apparent to both the players and fans that these last few playoff spots are not that important because those teams don’t have a realistic chance of going very far in the playoffs anyway.
Certainly this past 2019-2020 Covid-19 shortened NBA season is not a blue print for future NBA seasons, but does anyone really believe that the shortened season had any effect on the final outcome of the playoffs? The long layoff due to Covid-19 may have had some effect, but not the length of the regular season. There were no contenders that were “robbed” of a playoff spot because the season ended prematurely.
The NBA's recent proposal to reduce or alter the regular season is a good sign that they realize a problem exists. However, in my opinion, the reduction needs to be more significant in order to better protect the health of the players. Due to the Covid-19 altered 2019-2020 season, the 2020-21 NBA season will likely not begin until December or maybe January 2021. This could provide the perfect opportunity for the NBA to permanently reduce the length of the regular season and make a strong statement that they have the best interest of the players in mind.