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Less Would Be More

Shortening the NBA's regular season would be healthier in every way

It has become commonplace to call the battle for the NBA championship a war of attrition. The conventional wisdom is that the team with the fewest players wrapped in gauze at the end of the regular season will be the playoff winner. So it is pointless to talk about those moldy subjects: too many games, too much travel, too little time between games.

Oh, what the heck, let's talk about them anyway.

The human body, even the superlative variety hauled around by most NBA players, is simply not constructed to endure the stress of such an unforgiving regular season. Eight months of this high-jumping, high-contact, high-intensity sport would be too much, even if nightmare travel schedules, off-day practice sessions and game-day shootarounds were not part of the 82-game tapestry. By playoff time, good players on good teams are invariably sidelined by stress-related injuries or, at the very least, rendered legless by exhaustion, as the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson was against the Chicago Bulls in the Finals last June. That doesn't mean that the team left standing is not the best team. But it is the best team, in large measure, because it is also the healthiest team.

Well, you've heard all this before, and you know the response: Because of the league's average player salary, which is projected to be $1.14 million for 1991-92, every one of those 82 regular-season games must be played if the 27 franchises stand any chance of making a profit. If the team owners had their druthers, there would be more games, not fewer, and the league would hold the Finals over the July 4 weekend, go to the beach in August and get back to business in September. And though nearly every player complains about the endless grind, even the NBA Players Association is quiet on this issue.

Now there is no doubt that NBA players are in better shape than ever because of sophisticated year-round training regimens. Surgical advances have also enabled even seriously injured players to regain their productiveness. Dr. Robert Cook, the team physician for the Portland Trail Blazers, recently completed a study on the long-term effects of injuries among NBA players. His research indicated that by and large, the league is not a breeding ground for chronic ailments like arthritis and other severe joint disorders. But that doesn't change the fact that every NBA season sees too many players on too many teams sidelined by injuries.

"These players operate in what I call the physiological red zone," says Cook. "From a medical point of view, there is absolutely no question that there should be a shorter season, fewer games and less frequency of games. The whole thing should be turned back a notch."

But that isn't going to happen, right, Doc?

"It all comes back to money and commercialism," says Cook. "That's the way of sports. Physicians can't do anything except be in a basic pit-crew posture the entire season."

But how can responsible people agree that a schedule that takes a team from Chicago to Orlando to Miami to East Rutherford, N.J., to Landover, Md., and back to Chicago for six games in 11 days (a slice of life for the Bulls between next March 11 and 21) is nutty and continue to insist that nothing can be done about it? Moreover, with the preseason McDonald's Open in Europe and regular-season games in Japan (that will happen again in 1992-93, as it did last season), the schedule has been getting even nuttier.

Don't laugh, but I think that an idea once kicked around by New York Knick coach Pat Riley and Utah Jazz president Frank Layden should be kicked around again. They discussed cutting the NBA season into halves, with somewhere between 30 and 35 games per half. The revenue from the lost games (from 12 to 22 per team) could be at least partially recouped by a televised single-elimination Christmastime tournament that would command interest at a time of year when the NBA now yields the basketball stage almost entirely to the colleges. The tournament would involve the top eight teams from each conference and be held in, say, Madison Square Garden and L.A.'s Forum. The results wouldn't count in the standings, but cash incentives for the players would make the series a real event rather than simply a midseason exhibition. Proceeds would be shared by all teams, and the bigger the event became, the more fully it would offset revenue lost because of the fewer regular-season games.

The 11 teams that fail to qualify for the tournament would use the downtime for much needed rest and regrouping. None of the 16 teams that did qualify would play more than four games. In the current rat race, teams with injuries rarely have the time to get fully healthy. A player who should get 10 days off for a severe ankle sprain could miss as many as six games in that span, and so he doesn't take the 10 days. He comes back early, gets hurt again and limps through the rest of the season. It happens dozens of times, year after year.

With a sane regular-season schedule, the playoffs—the lifeblood of the league—could be expanded to include even more teams. Don't gasp. With a shorter schedule, the postseason could begin up to a month earlier. An expanded playoff format would produce more revenue, too.

Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is talking, no doubt wistfully, about shortening the major league season, and the NFL has adjusted its schedule to provide each team an in-season weekend off for licking wounds. But the league that really needs to turn things back a notch is the NBA.