The NBA is beset by many problems, but its greatest deficiency is its insane schedule. I am convinced that this shortcoming could be rectified overnight if the following simple advice were heeded.
As late as 1960, the seventh game of the NBA championship series was played on April 9. Now it falls in June. The reason for this is to get in more games. The NBA has always adhered to the philosophy that more is better, but it doesn't always work that way, as they will tell you in Niger, which has the highest birth rate in the world. Nobody in the NBA ever dared consider that if it had fewer games, the product would be taken more seriously and thus be more valuable.
The NBA began its current season on Oct. 13, and it goes on for almost eight months. Baseball takes six months to play 162 games, but baseball (like football) is a very well-defined institution in the rhythm of American life. Opening Day and the World Series are annual benchmarks. In addition, in baseball the pitchers are rotated, resulting in new strategies and different lineups, even when the same two teams play. This is the main reason why no NBA playoff series should ever be more than three of five. With different pitchers, four of seven is tolerable; with the set lineups, it is an excess.
The first thing the NBA must do is schedule its championship at a proper time, so that it gets due focus and distinction. An NBA Playoff Week must be carved into the sports calendar. The obvious time is the last week in April, following the Masters and the beginning of baseball season, and just before the Kentucky Derby. Moreover, the five games must be played with as few off days as possible. Last year, it took 18 days to play seven games. Diffusing your best product is marketing madness. The NBA championship should be played in one compact week. A Washington-Seattle series for 1979 would go this way: opener at Washington Monday, April 23. Travel the 24th. Play at Seattle Wednesday and Thursday, April 25, 26. Travel the 27th. Play at Washington Saturday and Sunday, April 28, 29.
The league must also cut the lag time between the regular season and the championship. Last year many NBA teams finished playing six weeks before the Sonics and Bullets started their 18-day marathon. This is much too long a period. People in cities not involved lose interest, and the NBA championship is reduced to a regional competition. The regular season should conclude no later than the end of March, three weeks before the championship series open.
(A note of caution to the enlightened reader who is charmed by these wise proposals: forget it. The NBA will reply to any suggestions of change that it is impossible because the teams could never clear arena dates. This is the alltime, all-purpose excuse for all NBA folly.)
But if the conclusion of the NBA season is blurred, the beginning is invisible, because it starts at a time guaranteed to attract the least possible attention: in the midst of the World Series. If the NBA were in charge of the Fourth of July, it would schedule it on Dec. 25.
As a consequence of this disastrous planning, the NBA has no form, no grandeur. How can you take something seriously which starts in the dark and never ends? The NBA must have a specific Opening Day—or, really, two consecutive Opening Days. These two days must come: 1) after the World Series, and 2) in midweek so they won't compete with football. I suggest the first Wednesday and Thursday in November. All 22 teams in the NBA would play Wednesday-Thursday, home-and-home games against special opponents. For instance, the Knicks vs. the Nets at the Garden Wednesday, and in New Jersey on Thursday. The two teams which met in the championship series the April before would play return matches. If an especially big trade had been made—such as this season's McGinnis for Jones and Simpson deal—these two teams would be booked to open home and home: Denver vs. Philadelphia, in this case. The NBA opening days would be a competitive extravaganza, something very special to start the season formally and with fanfare. Unfortunately, this is completely impossible, because, as you know, the arena dates could not be obtained.
Moreover, the unwieldy schedule must be reduced, and the regular season divided into halves. The first half of the NBA season should have concluded this year on Thursday. Jan. 18. By that time, each team would have played 28 or 30 games, about a dozen fewer than they now drag through. The reason the first part of the season should have ended on Jan. 18 is because the Super Bowl took place the following Sunday, and there is no more sense battling that than the World Series.
The first half of the NBA would be known as the "tournament season," because on Tuesday, two days after the Super Bowl, the great NBA tournament would begin. The top four teams in each of the four divisions would qualify. In each division, the champion would host the fourth-place team, the runner-up would host the third-place team. Eight games, all on Tuesday night. Single elimination. Then on Thursday night the eight winners play, the teams with the best records getting home court. Now we have four teams left, which travel to one tournament site—the Astrodome, the Garden, wherever—for semifinals Saturday and prime-time finals Monday.
The league takes its cut, the franchises theirs. Everything else goes into one pot for a genuine, certified, winner-take-all jackpot of $100,000 or more per player for the tournament champion—the greatest team bonanza in sports. With money like that, players might even be moved to dive for loose balls.
On Wednesday, Jan. 31, the second half of the season—known as (he "conference season"—would begin. Every team starts anew with a 0-0 record. Everybody has a fresh slate. And every game counts plenty, because there will only be about 30—like a college season—and all of them will be against intraconference opponents. Only eight teams will qualify for the playoffs—the four division winners and the four other teams with the best records. These eight will play three rounds, all best-of-five, culminating in the championship playoffs that begin, as mentioned before, on Monday, April 23.
An additional note: the NBA will play its All-Star Series over the Washington Birthday weekend. There will be four divisional All-Star teams, meeting in a TV doubleheader Sunday afternoon, with the two winners squaring off for the winner-take-all purse on Monday night.
Of course, none of this is possible, because it would be impossible to obtain the arena dates.