Forecasts of a gripping season have devolved into the most challenging period for Commissioner Adam Silver since he banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling early in his tenure five years ago. The China fiasco over Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet marred the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign, and even though the basketball has been entertaining and several superstars have elevated their games to unimaginable levels, the NBA is struggling to live up to its recent history of extraordinary growth and appeal, as well as capitalize on the excitement that many fans had over the summer.
But the current lethargic state of the NBA doesn’t amount to reason for long-term panic. The issues are so noticeable because the league had been thriving amid one of its greatest stretches. There’s nothing wrong that time, familiarity and a little business maintenance won’t cure. But it’s fair to say that the league has exited its hot, do-no-wrong phase. The drop in television ratings is a concern and also a mandate to continue working toward meeting cord-cutting fans where they are. The expected revenue hit, mostly because of Chinese backlash, should force franchises to be more creative and proactive. There’s no reason to go crazy, but the early returns this season are a sign that complacency cannot be tolerated.
The NBA season always begins as a soft launch, with the Christmas slate, which has expanded to five games, representing the true start for the mass audience. A little more than one-third of the season is complete, but there’s still time to enhance or diminish the reputation of this season. Now starts an important time to adjust a narrative that has been too centered on injuries and resting players.
There are some problems that no one could control. A knee injury has kept New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson, who would have been a nightly highlight, off the court all season. We knew Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson wouldn’t be available this year, but Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry are among the marquee players who were injured early and have missed significant time.
And then there is the load management issue, which keeps resurfacing. Kawhi Leonard isn’t playing in back-to-backs and may not surpass the 60 regular season games he played for Toronto last season. Enough players are on pitch counts that the league has revised the way that teams are allowed to report player absences, hoping to eliminate the perception that healthy athletes are shortchanging fans.
During the preseason, as we mined the rosters and saw clusters of dynamic duos instead of one or two super teams, there was a thought that every game would matter this season in a way that it rarely does in the NBA. Wrong. The 82-game schedule is still long and full of lulls. And for all the talk of parity, too few teams truly have the ability to win the title, and some of those teams know they can coast a little (ahem, Clippers) and focus on staying healthy and peaking in the postseason.
On paper, it seemed as if perhaps eight or nine teams could win it all. Right now, I see three: Milwaukee, the Lakers and the Clippers, with Philadelphia and Boston possessing enough top-end talent but needing to make a trade to join them.
The NBA’s improved parity doesn’t rise to the very top. The second tier is more crowded than ever, but it’s as hard as ever to get to the highest shelf. It could make for a fun trade deadline as teams convince themselves they are a piece or two away. But parity has never been the NBA’s thing, and while I think the playoffs could produce a few more upsets than usual, this season ultimately will be judged, as usual, by whether a great team emerges.
The drama is all happening as Silver works toward changing the schedule. It looks like a 78-game setup with an in-season tournament and a tweaked playoff format is going to happen. I would rather see the season shortened by at least 10 games, but I admit that I can’t create a feasible revenue model for that. So for the way pro sports function, this represents dramatic change, and perhaps it winds up being an initial step toward removing the barrier that tradition plays in interfering with doing what’s right.
But as the NBA makes this shift, it also sends a message in the present: Our 82-game regular season isn’t as compelling as it should be. It’s admirable that Silver isn’t pretending, and if he executes his vision properly, he will help modernize the league. But until the change occurs, it’s hard to sell to people that your regular season is must-see TV.
The challenge of the long NBA season is also its reward. It’s a slow-burning product. It’s a three-hour movie full of character development that often provides a big payoff at the end. You have to invest in the eccentric stars and their journeys. It will never be purely plot-driven.
As the league strains to captivate the audience this season, there’s still hope that the Kawhis and LeBrons and Greek Freaks and Beards and Lukas are progressing toward dramatic conclusions. Can they help the league overcome a difficult start? If they can’t, then there is reason to worry.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.