The NBA season does not need to be 82 games long. It also doesn’t need divisions or conferences, for that matter. In an ideal world, the season would run for 50 or so games before beginning the NBA playoffs, which would consist of the 16 best teams in the league, regardless of conference.
I understand the incentive to play all 82 games, and I know that the league’s TV deals are predicated on playing the whole time.
However, one of the main reasons the NBA pales in comparison to the NFL, in terms of popularity and market share, is due to its unnecessarily long season. In the NFL, each team plays once a week, for 18 weeks (with a “bye week” once a season, included to give each team an extra week to rest). Therefore, each game means quite a bit, relative to the NBA.
In the NFL, the teams prepare each week for one opponent, watching film and structuring practices with the sole goal of defeating them.
In addition, NFL games played within a team’s division prove to be significant because teams make it to the playoffs by winning the most games within their divisions.
Hence, a week-two matchup between the Patriots and the Bills (both of the AFC East division) instantly means a lot to fans of either team. Alternatively, a mid-season matchup between the Celtics and the Knicks (both of the Atlantic division) may mean a lot to fans because of the historical significance of the matchup, but its result is not very significant to playoff standings.
Winning your division in the NFL means everything. Even if your team doesn’t have a cumulative winning record, if it has the best record in the context of its division, it’s in the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, anything can happen.
In the NBA, winning your division means almost nothing. Other than an opportunity to make some T-shirts and hats that say “Division Champion,” there isn’t much that comes with winning your division in the NBA.
While division champions usually make the playoffs, it is entirely possible to win your division and not make the playoffs.
In the NBA, the eight best teams (the seventh and eighth of which are now determined by a “play-in game”) in each conference make the playoffs, rendering those intra-division games meaningless, outside of geographical or historical rivalries.
Because division games in the NBA don’t bear nearly the same significance as they do in the NFL, there’s 16 games for each team each season that don’t matter all that much, compared to the six intra-division games in the NFL that matter quite a bit.
The NBA could fix this lack of meaning assigned to most regular season games by shortening the season.
This would accomplish a number of things, including: reducing the amount of injuries players sustain due to physical overuse during the season, adding inherent significance to each game played (which would encourage star players to sit out less) and extending careers — allowing players to play more seasons in their careers.
Most importantly, a shorter season would solve the division problem discussed above. If the season was shorter, the league could entirely abolish the two conferences and their six sub-divisions.
In this newly imagined league, with 50 games, there would be one conference with all 30 teams; the top 16 would make the playoffs.
The NBA has largely failed to create intra-market rivalries — the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets share a city, and the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers even share an arena — though neither pairing has any semblance of a heated rivalry.
So, let rivalries arise organically through improved league organization.
Most would rather watch the Memphis Grizzlies play the Golden State Warriors right now than a Lakers-Clippers game, and that’s the byproduct of a small market team and their dazzling, young superstar rising to challenge the hegemonic Warriors and their established star core, not geography.
Making these two alterations could be the first step in regaining some of the NBA viewership lost in recent years, increasing the league’s popularity and watchability.
I believe some restructuring, or reimagining, of the NFL season could make some sense too. I do not think it is a model for excellence, that is to say. Winning the division in the NFL does not really mean everything, or even a very significant amount relatively speaking. What is more significant is whether you can be the one team in the conference with a first-round bye, and whether you can make the playoffs with a decent record (as at least a wild card).
Historically, since the inception of Superbowl play in the 1966 season, the NFL has been shrinking the number of teams inside a conference with a first-round bye. For a number of years, roughly 1980 – 2020 (or until just recently, that is) the number was two. The latter system’s playoff format included per conference: the two bye teams and then three wild card teams and one division winner who had to play in the first round. Prior to 1980, *all three division winners* [There were only three then, with these being: the Eastern, the Central and the Western divisions for each conference.] received a first-round bye, with the wild cards only playing in the first round. There were two wild cards, three division winners, therefore, per conference. However, that system, though it made a good amount of sense, oddly lasted only a year or two. Prior to that … all division winners (3) *and* the (now) single wild card team received a first-round bye and therefore played in the first round of the playoffs two weeks after the end of the regular season.
Therefore, the farther back one goes in time in the Superbowl era, there are two key developments: 1. It becomes more important, and more prestigious, to win your division; 2. The number of wild card teams per conference tends to decrease. There also is a third development: the number of teams in each division generally tended to increase.
So, there are now arguably two important points in the NFL regular season: making the playoffs, but also getting that first round bye (…if it yet still exists…)
I am old enough to recall when there were only four playoff teams per conference in the NFL: the three division winners and the sole wild card team. The number of teams in each division in the mid and latter 1970s was either 5 or 6. It was during this time that division play, and rivalries within the division, frankly, really meant much more and as a consequence the regular season play was of greater value. (First 14 games per season, then 16.)
As with Major League Baseball, the NFL has been constantly increasing the number of regular season games, the number of teams, the number of divisions inside a Conference (or League), and, above all, increasing the number of playoff teams. It is because of this *desire for more playoff teams* (and consequently, games) that divisions inside a Conference (or League) have been increasing. And this has led to the sad dilution in the importance of the regular season, one of Mr. Mundy’s key points in this article. It has also led to the creation of ridiculously small and near meaningless ‘divisions’ whose only purpose is to divide the Conference/League and so create the requisite number of playoff games the commissioner and team owners thinks desirable.
Hockey has restructured to a fair degree. I think it is now time the NFL, MLB, and the NBA examine this issue.