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.