How to fix the NBA

Commissioner David Stern exudes confidence, even when he’s telling the press that the NBA is going to lose an estimated $400 million this season. Bill Simmons thinks that teams regularly screw over their fan bases by unloading good players at the trade deadline, tanking games late in the season to get a better lottery pick, all without any discount to the season tickets. If a team gives up on the season, why do the tickets remain the same price?

Here are a few of his ideas to fix this model:

Any team that misses the playoffs cannot raise ticket prices the following season. Miss two straight playoffs, season-ticket holders get a 5 percent discount for renewals the following season. Miss three straight, it goes to 10 percent. Miss four straight, it jumps to 25 percent. Miss five straight, it jumps to 50 percent.

Let’s say the 2009-10 Clips knew that, if they missed the playoffs a fourth straight year, they would be looking at 25 percent discounts across the board. Is there any way they keep Dunleavy? No. Is there any way they dump Camby at the deadline? No. Financially, it wouldn’t make sense.

If I were running the NBA, eliminating the illusion of regret would be my biggest initiative. I would give every nonplayoff team the same odds for winning the lottery, just so these teams wouldn’t destroy six to eight weeks of a season for paying customers. Then, I would cut the season by four games, guarantee only the top 12 playoff spots, then decide the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference with a double-elimination tournament for every nonplayoff team that I call the Entertaining As Hell Tournament (see my 2007 column for the gory details). Boom, we just killed the tanking and salary-dumping issues.

Couldn’t that work? Has it even been discussed? Wouldn’t it generate a ton of interest and extra revenue? Wouldn’t you watch? Wouldn’t it put a ton of pressure on teams to stop shutting their best guys down or giving away contract-year guys for no real reason? You can’t give away Camby! We need him for the Entertaining As Hell Tournament in April! And who knows, maybe a wacky 7-seed would gain momentum and pull off a Round 1 shocker in the playoffs. You never know. It’s never a bad thing when those three words are involved.

Ticket discounts for non-playoff teams, equal opportunity in the lottery and a double-elimination tournament — these are all good (albeit fairly radical) ideas. The lottery idea was actually the way the NBA used to do things, and they should go back to it. Tanking at the end of the season is one of the biggest problems with today’s NBA.

As for the length of the season, I wouldn’t stop at cutting just four games. I’d go with a 66-game season. Every team would play each of its division rivals four times (16 games) and all the other teams twice, once at home and once away (50 games). Cutting back on the regular season would make it matter again. Right now, it’s rare for a regular season game to hold much significance.

Fewer games would also mean more schedule flexibility, so I’d set it up so that NBA teams would only play on certain days, say Tuesday (to avoid Mondays during football season), Friday and Saturday. That means there would be 15 games on each night, so NBATV could bounce around from game to game like the Red Zone Channel catching the best action and furious finishes. This would generate interest in the league and make fantasy basketball more appealing. Fantasy football is something that has really helped the NFL increase its popularity over the last decade.

Lastly, I’d cut guaranteed contracts down to a max of four years to re-sign a team’s own players and three years for free agents. This would limit the impact of mistakes, and while I agree with Houston GM Daryl Morey that it’s not a system that favors the prepared, it would increase parity by allowing teams to recover from mistakes more quickly, which is another thing that makes the NFL so popular. (Mediocre teams would benefit from a lottery system that would give equal opportunity to win the #1 pick to all of the non-playoff teams, so you win some and you lose some.)

The problem with Stern is that he’s too conservative in his thinking when it actually comes to the structure of the NBA, its regular season, and its postseason. He helped to usher in a new, more free-flowing game when the league passed stricter hand-check rules, and he has made the NBA an emerging global business, but when it comes to a relatively boring regular season, playoffs that are too long and too inclusive, and a lottery system that encourages tanking, he’s not very open-minded about trying something new.

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