With the baseball playoffs complete, the college basketball season not quite yet in stride, football only occupying our time on the weekends (except for the inevitable Mountain West Conference games that somehow show up every night on ESPN2 due to some exclusive programming contract that ensures BYU as much late night airplay as it wants) and the NHL only existing in the sweetest dreams of our neighbors to the north, the interminable NBA season is currently positioned as the only sport to grab our collective viewing attention.
There is really only one problem with that: The NBA season sucks. Period. It can sustain my interest for bits and spurts, but 82 games stretched agonizingly over six months is too much for even the most enraptured fan to handle. November games are totally insignificant and have no bearing on how things will shake out by the time the playoffs finally roll around in April (at which point we get dragged through another arduous ordeal, but that’s another complaint).
I didn’t say that the NBA itself sucks. Surprisingly, I’m pretty sure it actually doesn’t. The day of the Miami-New York low-scoring physical slugfests that threatened to ruin the game aesthetically are long gone, and even the isolation game that rewards selfishness and thwarts fast breaks has begun to erode. The executives now leading teams (Ainge, Bird, McHale, etc.) played on teams in the 1980s that favored an up-tempo game that is infinitely more enjoyable to watch.
The talent pool is still comparatively thin and watching Kobe and Antoine Walker hoist 30 shots a game apiece will be both terrible and amusing as hell, but the product on the court, to me at least, isn’t as offensive to watch on the whole as it has been in recent years. It’s a shame that New Jersey, Sacramento and Dallas saw their windows of opportunity slip away without championships to show because their Steve Spurrier fun-and-gun styles could have prompted imitations among like-minded front offices. Watch this year’s Phoenix Suns (4-0 as of Wednesday and averaging over 105 points a game) with Mavs-castoff Steve Nash running the show for an entertaining basketball experience.
Joe Dumars and Detroit helped end the era of uninspired isolation last year by winning with the consummate team that was greater than the sum of its parts. But the style with which they did it — reminiscent of the Dumars/Isiah/Laimbeer Pistons but with less maiming and more athleticism — wasn’t exactly the most thrilling.
So the NBA itself isn’t the problem. The problem is the season, which lasts longer than the construction on the Big Dig. (By the way America, the problems just keep getting worse so you get to keep funding Boston’s construction. Sucks for you.) By far the most enjoyable NBA season in recent memory was the lockout-induced 50-game sprint in 1999. Each game in that season actually meant something because the margin for error dissipated dramatically. With this marathon, teams like the Lakers of the past five years could sleepwalk through months on end knowing they’d coast in the regular season before heroically inspiring themselves to “turn it on” in the playoffs.
The NFL regular season is the most intently followed by the average fan because, with only 16 games on the docket, each weekend matters dearly. Major League Baseball’s season spans six months as well but is entirely more palatable than its NBA counterpart. First, the sparse nature of playoff berths (eight out of 30 teams get into the dance as opposed to 16 of 30) adds significance to each game. Teams can’t just tune out for half the season and still be assured of a playoff spot. The Red Sox this year, a .500 team through May, June and July, had to end the season on a ridiculous tear to even get an opportunity to win a title.
Just as important, the NBA schedule does nothing to superficially enhance the allure of a typical contest. In baseball, the multiple-game series structure allows for a brief sense of continuity with an opponent that makes the viewing experience more interactive and comforting. Additionally, the unbalanced schedule in baseball allows for two viewing extremes that go unmatched in the NBA. Divisional opponents, by virtue of meeting upwards of 20 times per season, become all-too-familiar, and familiarity causes people to not like each other. Because of that ingrained familiarity, though, interleague games (now that the divisions rotate their opponents each season) have a novelty that attracts casual viewers to pay attention to games in June, before the pennant races have really begun. The only feature of the NBA schedule that is markedly interesting is the rare home-and-home series, but that comes too infrequently and without much ballyhoo.
The National Hockey League, mired in its lockout, has the same problem as the NBA. Its season is far too long and the playoffs far too encompassing. Like the NBA, the NHL had its most lively year when the superfluous games were chopped off — the 1995 lockout-shortened 48-game season. Not only would an abridged season spark increased fan interest, it would appease owners who are uniformly frustrated with their lack of profitability. Obviously players would never agree to a shortened-season (and the pro-rated salaries that would invariably follow), but if they actually want to play hockey again in the United States in the future, a compromise would appear to be in order.
As for the NBA, I do enjoy watching individual games sporadically for their isolated entertainment value. But the coherence of an NBA season makes no sense to me right now, and it’s tough to rationalize living and dying with each game since the wiggle room is so substantial. Speaking of which, Antoine claims he’s bringing back the Walker Wiggle in Atlanta this year after abandoning it in Dallas. As a Celtics fan who used to love his flailings (a little more than his shot selection), I can’t wait. Now the atrocious Hawks just need to win a game.