One of the main criticisms of the NBA is that its season simply goes on for too long. Basketball, predominantly thought of as a winter sport, is played professionally from October until the end of June. Fans have lamented the damage it does to players and the quality of games because of the grueling schedule; for any one player to be on the court for every contest is a feat in itself.
This year, due to the lockout and Collective Bargaining Agreement struggles that nearly derailed the entire 2011-2012 season, the NBA was forced to play a 66-game schedule and tip-off the season on Christmas day. Because of the truncated time-frame, players started the year woefully out of shape and were forced to slog through back-to-back-to-backs and stretches of seven games in 10 days. For much of the early going the quality of basketball was lower as players adjusted to the quicker turnaround between games and the constant wear on their bodies.
No fan would say they want a 66-game schedule like they saw this season, but the question of whether the NBA should shorten the slate for each team is certainly a valid one. Personally, I think that playing roughly 66 games in the time usually allotted for 82 would be a very wise decision by David Stern and league management.
Professional basketball is not a war of attrition. Games and even championships should not be decided by who can suit up or who is simply too worn down to be effective. Obviously the athletes have to be in excellent physical condition and it's a part of their job, but even a LeBron James begins to show the effect of that many games towards the end of a year. Titles should not be swung by exhaustion or a balky ankle that finally gave out in a guy's 80th game of the season. Playing 66 games would greatly reduce the fatigue faced by players.
Obviously injuries could still occur, but basketball is not nearly as physical a sport as football and players participating in every game should not be such a rare occurrence. A 66-game season would not penalize teams like the Boston Celtics or San Antonio Spurs that build around veterans, nor would it provide to much of an advantage to clubs like the Miami Heat or Denver Nuggets who simply run their opponents out of the gym. These factors would come into play far less and it would be more about who simply played the better basketball than who held up on the court.
From an entertainment standpoint, a 66-game schedule may not seem preferable because it lops off 16 contests, but it actually is. In an 82-game season, the majority of games don't have much impact and even ardent fans will disregard the middle of the regular season. A shorter schedule means every game counts for more and that a four game skid could take a team from hosting a playoff series to waiting for lottery balls. Fans want to watch games that matter. That's why we love the playoffs, and there would actually be more of those with 66 games than 82.
In addition, certain marquee games would be even bigger events than they already are. Would you dare to miss the one meeting between Oklahoma City and Miami next year or the next chapter in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry? No one would want to miss these games because they only come once a year, as opposed to now when very few individual games carry any heft.
Coaches will have more time to work with their teams, as well. Often after the midseason trade deadline teams struggle to play as a unit because they cannot hit the practice courts and work on their chemistry, but with a shorter season there will be more time to iron out the kinks. Players will be able to hone their skills during the season instead of just in the summer.
There may be some inevitable backlash, but the right move for the NBA is to institute a 66-game schedule beginning around the same time as the current season and running through April or May. Players would be getting an adequate amount of rest, the quality of games would remain high and there would still be plenty of quality basketball to go around.
The league has seen a spike in television ratings and national interest this past season in part because each game was much more important than it had been in years prior. This will undoubtedly dwindle over time unless the format is altered to remain at around 66 games per year.
The 82-game season may be a time honored tradition of basketball, but it is best for the league to make a change. Ultimately, a shorter season would be a service to both players and fans, it may cost the league a little money initially, but the product they will be producing will be that much better.