The NBA is returning! As a fan, I can think of no better news to receive over Thanksgiving weekend. (Although the invention of calorie-free pumpkin pie or news that canned cranberry sauce adds years to your life would have been in contention.)
Amidst all the raucous celebration of the NBA’s return from the barren wasteland of lockout, details about the proposed 66-game schedule have started to emerge. One detail in particular, is troubling from a fan’s perspective. Of the 66 games to be played, 48 will be conference games. For those of you who don’t like math this means each team will only play 18 inter-conference games (down from 30 in a traditional 82-game seasons). Taken a step further, this means every NBA team will not visit every NBA city.
When weighed against the potential despair of a cancelled NBA season, the proposed schedule doesn’t seem all that bad. In reality, this is a minor complaint in a sea of joy and anticipation for the return of professional basketball. The problem is, essentially, a matter of principle.
The lockout, when all the accountants and lawyers have gone home for the evening, was really just a delay in the enjoyment of basketball for fans around the country. Once the union is reformed, David Stern and Billy Hunter sign on the dotted line, and the arena doors in every NBA city are unlocked, fans will look back at the lockout not as an event that forever changed the course of the sport, but as a minor inconvenience that only increased their anticipation for the 2011-12 season.
Remember when you went to the water park with your family as a child? You would step through the gates and immediately want to sprint to the nearest slide, but first, your mother forced you to apply sunscreen and wait until it set in. The waiting seemed pointless and interminable, but once Mom gave you the OK, it was just a bad memory, right? That’s how the lockout will feel Christmas Day. So how did the NBA decide to reward its fans for waiting patiently while both sides squabbled over billions of dollars? By ensuring that 20 percent of them won’t see some of the league’s premier players and superstars. 18 inter-conference games means the Suns will play in only nine Eastern Conference cities, leaving the other six without the opportunity to see Steve Nash. In the Western Conference, six cities won’t get the chance to boo the Heat when they come to town. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be missing a mid-February game against the Bucks in US Airways Center, but to potentially not see Derrick Rose, LeBron, or Dwight Howard just seems wrong when you think about the stress of the lockout on the everyday fan, and how much each of us is looking forward to a repeat of last year’s spectacular season.
I understand why the NBA decided to schedule the season this way. As it is, the players will be playing a game three nights in a row at least once if not two or three times during the year. Back to backs, which are hard on veterans like Steve Nash and Grant Hill, will be more prevalent than in seasons past. This will be a tough season on the players no matter how you look at it. The sacrifice of inter-conference games is an attempt to limit the travel time of each team. However, when you consider that the players have gotten an extra two months rest this offseason, protecting them from their typical travel schedule seems unnecessary. The NBA had a choice to make, and as is the norm when the NBA makes up its mind about something, the fans got the short end of the stick.
The opportunity to engender some goodwill was sitting right there in front of David Stern and the league. They blatantly missed the opportunity. During the press conference to announce the 66-game season, Stern could have exclaimed that preserving fan enjoyment was the NBA’s No. 1 priority in creating the schedule. Thus, each team would visit every NBA city, even though this would come at the expense of conference games. In this scenario, a 66-game season would look like this:
- Each team would play two games (home and home) with every other team in the league for a total of 58 games.
- Each team would play its four division opponents two additional times for a total of eight games.
Though 30 inter-conference games over a shortened season would no doubt be less than pleasing to the players, the benefits of showing the fans how much they matter to the league as a whole would far outweigh the players’ dismay.
Like I said before, this is a minor complaint and more a matter of principle than anything else. I believe that this time around, the NBA and its players need to think about principle more than ever before, so that we aren’t right back in the lockout wasteland 6-10 years from now. For the time being, I’m just basking in the glow of a Christmas Day tripleheader and hoping that calorie-free pumpkin pie is ready by then.