Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Will the Heat Care Tonight?

On my way to lunch on Saturday, I was listening to ESPN Radio and the hosts were interviewing some media professional associated with the Miami Heat.  (Either that or they were talking to an NBA writer and just happened to only ask him questions about the Heat.  Given that we are talking about ESPN, that is just as plausible.)  The topic was the Heat coasting at times during the season, specifically during a barely-explicable home loss to the Bucks that dropped the Heat to 11-5.  The Heat have since won five in a row to get to 16-5, a record more befitting their talent, but the fact remains that even in a shortened NBA season, we can't rely on teams to be focused from game to game.  The stakes are simply too low.  What is the advantage gained by the Heat busting their tails to get to 50 wins?  The right to play those rare game sevens at home.  That's a small payoff for a major effort.  If you want an illustration of how low the stakes are in regular season NBA games, the Heat and Bulls - the two best teams in the East - played on Sunday and the discussion on Monday morning was not about the result, but rather about the fact that Carlos Boozer's son was caught going along with the "Let's go Heat" chant.

If you want to know why I've gravitated to European soccer as my second favorite sport after college football, the lack of importance of the vast majority of American pro sports games would be one of the major reason.  In contrast to the "will the Heat care today?" question that we have to ask ourselves before each game, on Sunday afternoon, I watched Barca labor to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal.  Unlike the Heat, Barca have earned the right to coast every now and again by winning 13 trophies in the past three years and change.  The theme of Barca's season in La Liga this year has been their struggles on the road, dropping points regularly in 0-0 and 2-2 draws.  Maybe Barca's players are having a hard time getting up for these games, but the key point is that they are punished for doing so.  The Blaugrana are now seven points behind Real Madrid and will require significant help from their arch-rivals to get back into the title race.  If the La Liga season were simply about seeding for a short post-season tournament, then Barca could go through the motions on the road and no one would bat an eyelash.  Instead, the stakes are high for each match and the penalty for not scoring at El Madrigal is significant.

I thought about this issue when reading Bill Simmons' column last night.  Simmons spends 1,261 words describing an elaborate plan to push the NBA regular season back with a later start date and conclusion, but he never grapples with the fundamental problem with the sport: the regular season is four-times as long as the playoffs, but isn't even one-quarter as important.  What about doing away with the playoffs to reward the teams that are the best over the long-haul?  Or at least limit the playoffs to one series like baseball did before 1969?  To quote Simmons:

"Because that's the way we've always done it."

(News flash: Those are the eight worst words in sports.)
For the record, I don't buy Simmons' notion that leagues should make radical changes and that there is no value in traditions.  A sport should follow a certain rhythm and the NBA is no different.  Get rid of that rhythm and you are disconnecting your fans from their patterns, which might lead them to no longer buy your product.  However, if the NBA is interested in a major change, then surely doing something to increase the stakes of the regular season is more important than the start date. 


Jerry Hinnen said...

I've always thought a major problem for the NBA/MLB/NHL schedule glutting wasn't just that the games mean so little, it's that they're scheduled so erratically. Even in an 82-game full season, if you're an NBA or NHL fan, your team could be playing on any random day of the week at any time. The whole of the schedule has a rhythm to it, but from day-to-day, week-to-week, there's no pattern or progress, no time to build up anticipation for any given matchup.

I think it's another place where the US pros could learn from Euro soccer's example--play the bulk of games Wednesday/Saturday with a handful of Thursday/Sunday specials. Can't get to 82 that way, but something in the 55-65 range would be doable, and each game would FEEL like more of an event in addition to actually, you know, being more of one.

Nate said...

The essential problem, as I see it, is that by having the playoffs come after the regular season, you can't avoid the built-in narrative that the playoffs are the climax to the season.

In European soccer the major tournaments run concurrently to the regular season, which makes for a more convoluted, less linear team narrative, but does mean that the league title isn't subsumed by what comes next. As someone who has started following Arsenal seriously, I can tell from following the blogs and podcasts that, from the British perspective, Arsenal's success in the FA cup and Champions League this year is distinctly secondary to our poor performance in league play, and thus the mood is very sour.

As I understand it, the gate receipts are too significant for the MLB/NBA/NHL to cut back on games. I'm not going to slog through another Simmons outpouring to find out what he has to say, but I would presume that money dicates the long schedule, not tradition.

4.0 Point Stance said...

For the NBA, at least, there really is no point in tradition. To the extent the league concerns itself with nostalgia at all, it doesn't go back much further than Johnson/Bird. *Maybe* Dr. J. Which is what, like 1972?

The NBA has always rewarded people for bucking tradition (eg, Dr. J). To the extent the NBA has a tradition at all, it's not one worth worrying about. And frankly the NBA, more so than any of the other major sports, is explicitly an entertainment and personality driven league, not a sports-driven league. This isn't college football where people are still waxing poetic on John Crow Ransom and the Four Horsemen.

dave clark said...

If I may:

"I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

NBA ratings are through the roof and have been steadily climbing since 2007. I agree with you that the season is too long and I can't bother to care much about games in January, but: even though it seems like everyone says that, people are watching.

Probably because the league is compelling. After Jordan retired for the second time, the Association was just a bunch of iso play ran by superstars who all seemed like assholes. But this style of play went away, for a few reasons: the rise of the Mavs under Cuban, the influx of international talent, allowing zone defenses, enforcing hand-checking, and the sick '03 draft. This isn't Jordan's NBA anymore, nor is it AI's and Anthony Mason's, and I think that leads to an *overall* more watchable product. Seems like the fans agree.

I could see the Association start the season on Christmas like this year did because of the lockout. I think that was a secret success. Don't know if they'd ever shorten the season or just push playoff games into August.

Anonymous said...

Odd post. To anybody who watches a significant amount of NBA basketball, it's obvious that the players care. The organizations sometimes don't care (rightly so, but we'll get to that in a minute) and you can tell from the lineups (star players scratched, megastars take 4 game hiatuses because of "knee injuries," random rookies getting 30+ minutes). But because the players themselves care, the product is intrinsically compelling. Just like a game between 5-2 Georgia vs. 4-3 Florida.

Now, back to my tangent; because of the lack of relegation and the inverse draft order odds, marginal teams have a massive disincentive to care. If anything, they should be trying to lose. The players have too much competitive pride to not care, but the GMs? Not so much. But that has nothing to do with playoffs.