Andy Larsen: The NBA needs to add some incentive for regular season success

The number of games won’t change, but the league can create a more competitive environment by offering the top teams some postseason advantages

(Mark J. Terrill | AP) Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis shoots past Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during the second half in Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Oct. 9, 2020.

If you were starting a sports league from scratch, would you do it this way?

In the NBA, we have a regular season of 82 grueling games (OK, 72 in this pandemic-shortened season). Injuries are suffered, tens of thousands of miles traveled, loose balls are dived for, practices are held every day, in order to try to perform as well as possible in these innumerable games.

The winner of this monthslong gantlet gets to:

1. In the playoff games that matter, hopefully play other good teams two weeks later than otherwise.

2. When those good teams play each other, if they just so happen to play a series that is so close that it requires seven games to complete, that final game will take place in a more convenient city on an identical playing surface.

That’s it? That’s what we play 82 games for?

What the NBA’s best teams have rightly figured out is that going all out for such a flimsy set of incentives is frankly, really dumb.

Coaches admit to not using their best game plans in the regular season, so they can save them for the playoffs. The game’s best players are playing fewer minutes than ever before — when they do play. They frequently sit back-to-backs, or because of neck soreness, or just plain old rest. (Or, in some cases, it’s just a plain “DNP-Old”.)

The good news is that most players still are giving great effort when they’re on the floor. Their contracts still largely are given by regular-season performance, and so they try to play hard, especially early in their careers. But the wiser players, the coaches and management, and of course the league’s media and fans, always know:

These games aren’t that important.

We should try to fix that.

There are ways to do it, too. College football, for example, is able to put importance on every game by shortening the season; the difference between zero, one, and two losses is massive on the outcome of the season. Every game truly has importance. The NFL, even with an extended playoff format, benefits from some of this same contraction of games: 10-6, you’re probably in. 9-7? Well, we have some questions.

I think weekly NBA games would actually be a fascinating setup — but I understand it makes everyone much less money. In the end, the league’s economics don’t work as well with 20,000 seat indoor arenas as 75,000 outdoor stadiums.

So here’s another obvious idea borrowed from other sports: give out a trophy to the regular season champions! Soccer leagues do this nearly exclusively; and while MLS somewhat Americanized things by having a playoff at the end, they still give out the “Supporters Shield” trophy at the end of the year to the regular season’s best team.

Have Adam Silver come out to the winning team’s arena. Raise a banner. Give the team captain a shiny cup that he can raise to the skies and garner fan cheers. No, no one is arguing that this would matter as much as an NBA Finals trophy — there’s too much history there. But it would matter some, which is more than it currently does.

Not a fan of that idea? How about more simply adding to the benefits of winning in the regular season? The NFL does that by giving its top seeds a bye in the first round — a skip of a chance to lose, an extra week of rest.

Or, you can add more incentives, and do what Australian rules football does down under. Their entire playoff system was set up to give the top teams significant advantages in the playoffs. The top two seeds get to essentially skip rounds on the way to the finals, and there’s even an element of double-elimination in the early rounds. There’s a significant reason for those teams to do their best throughout the regular season, and it shows in competition.

Now, yes, I know that it’s bad timing for me to be making this argument. The Jazz, the team that I cover, are in first place. They are the team that would benefit from these changes this year. “Look at the silly Jazz reporter, trying to change the rules, worried that the Jazz aren’t going to do well in the playoffs.” I can hear the Twitter taunting now.

But you know that I’m right. If we set aside stodgy tradition — the least good reason to stay with anything — you know the answer to my initial question: no, we’d never plan it this way if we were starting today. The weakness in the regular season would be too glaringly obvious to overcome, even the commissioner’s grandchildren would scoff. “82 games? But why!?”

It’s time to make a change. Let’s do something, small or big, to improve the situation. Let’s come together, debate and discuss, choose an idea, and move forward. But most importantly:

Let’s make the NBA regular season matter.

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