Decade Of Change: 10 Ways To Usher In Another NBA Golden Era

The first "Golden Era" of NBA basketball began in 1984-85 when Michael Jordan arrived, peaked during the 1987-88 season, the best in NBA history, and ended after MJ’s first retirement in 1993.  That eight-season stretch was loaded with iconic star players, epic performances – both individually and among teams – and attendance, league revenues and franchise values rocketed upward annually. 

Going back to the Heat’s NBA Finals upset victory to cap off the exciting 2005-06 season, I thought we were on the verge of another "Golden Era", again chock-full with iconic stars (Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Melo, Dwight, Duncan, Dirk, Yao, KG, Nash and so on), epic performances (remember LeBron versus Pierce in the 2008 playoffs? Or Kobe’s 81-point game? Or Suns/Spurs triple overtime in the first round a few years back?) and once again, deeply talented teams like this season’s Celtics, Lakers, Cavaliers and Magic.  

Having just wrapped up another decade of NBA basketball, I was hoping we’d be extending this second "Golden Era" of pro basketball into the twenty-teens. Instead, I fear that we’re heading for a lockout and a dysfunctional, unbalanced league unless some major changes are made soon.  

NBA TV ratings, viewership and interest may be up (it’s my understanding that there are more NBA blogs by far than blogs dedicated to the NFL and MLB), but I’ve been to home games for six different NBA franchises this season – the Nuggets, Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, Bulls and Wizards – and trust me when I tell you: trouble is afoot and it’s not just because of the global economic crisis we’re still experiencing.  Something is wrong when fans and season ticket holders like me are shelling out well over $100 per ticket and yet owners are losing tens of millions of dollars at the same time…even the owners’ notoriously famous "fuzzy math" when it comes to pro sports accounting can’t cook up the type of losses and franchise devaluation owners are seeing right now.  But I don’t need the owners to tell me things have gone awry.  All I have to do is look at the rows upon rows of empty seats in NBA arenas to know that the storm clouds are collecting.  

With a new collective bargaining agreement on the near horizon, the timing couldn’t be better to address the issues crippling NBA owners while screwing the fans.  For the readers of my Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs, some of this will be repetitive (I authored a "Collective Bargaining Wish List" column back in August 2009 when NBA owners announced they would not renew the current CBA for the 2011-12 season…gee, I wonder why?), but I’ll be highlighting a number of new issues that must be addressed and changed if the league and sport we dearly love is to continue prospering into the future.

So without further adieu, here are 10 things the NBA needs to change over the next 10 years, and hopefully sooner than later…  

No. 1: Abolish the guaranteed contract

Nothing hurts the NBA more than the guaranteed contract (just ask Knicks fans).  And in the NBA, it’s double trouble for owners.  It would be bad enough to just have to pay out the contracts for underperforming players, but in the NBA it also counts against the salary cap.  I’m for an NFL-type system that serves up a little more security for the players in the form of partial guarantees or signing bonuses.  For example, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein only $1.9 million of Drew Gooden’s $4.5 million salary this season was guaranteed, and the Mavericks had until January 6th to decide whether or not Gooden would remain with the team for the season.  Gooden has played well, and thus has earned the remainder of that contract.  Why can’t more salaries be structured this way?

For longer-term deals, the guaranteed money should come in the form of signing bonuses or maybe the first three years (maximum) could be guaranteed.  This would give guys like Eddy Curry, Tim Thomas, Larry Hughes, Marco Jaric and the many other wastes of big contracts in the NBA incentive to actually, you know, work on their games and their bodies for fear of never seeing that money again.  Moreover, the Tracy McGradys and Shaquille O’Neals of the NBA world would stop jerking around with their surgery schedules and get themselves taken care of in the offseason rather than during the season.

Owners shouldn’t be punished for bringing in free agents in an attempt to win championships and reward their fans’ loyalty.  And under the current system, that’s exactly what guaranteed contracts do. 

No. 2: Cease all back-to-back games 

I’ve been particularly sensitive to back-to-backs this season because my beloved Nuggets were rewarded with a Western Conference high 22 of them (compared to the Lakers having 19).  Additionally, I’ve sat through a number of snoozers at Pepsi Center (including a 26-point victory over the Lakers) because Nugget opponents were playing the second of a back-to-back.  Through games as of last weekend, NBA teams playing the second of a back-to-back had collectively lost 147 times compared to just 73 wins.  And in those losses, the average point differential was 12.7.  In other words, these games are usually blowouts and a waste of fan money.  As you can see, it’s not just NBA teams who suffer from too many back-to-backs; the fans suffer, too. 

Not only are back-to-backs tough on players and fans, but they’re not spread evenly among all 30 teams.  I recognize that arenas have scheduling conflicts and eradicating all back-to-backs may not be a reality.  But I’m sure with the sophisticated tools available to schedule makers these days, the NBA could at the very least limit the number of back-to-backs to 10 per team and only two per month, with a variance of no more than one more or one less back-to-back per team (Houston head coach Rick Adelman recently lashed out at the NBA schedule makers for giving his Rockets three consecutive pairs of back-to-back games in December). All we as fans ask for his an earnest effort on the floor and a semi-fair fight, and eliminating back-to-backs would greatly help in this area.

No. 3: Shorten the regular season by 10 games

The NBA has to come up with a way to make regular season games more meaningful, and cutting the season by 10 games would be a good place to start (I’d also slash the preseason by at least five games).  The devil’s advocate argument here is that NBA teams will lose money with 10 less games, but with the exception of a few teams – like the Lakers – that argument doesn’t hold water.  In fact, a number of NBA teams (like the Timberwolves this season) lose money by simply opening their arena doors because the money paid to the concessioners, janitors, security guards, cheerleaders, support staff, utilities, etc. isn’t covered by what they bring in revenue-wise on a dead night.  Furthermore, attendance would be better if there were less games for fans to attend, making for more raucous arenas, which is always a good thing.  

To pull this off, the NBA would need to preserve the two-home, two-away games within divisions and the one-home, one-away game with teams from the opposite conference.  From there, the schedule could be sorted out in a weighted fashion based on previous season records to ensure some competitive balance. 

No. 4: Simplify trades

Under the current collective bargaining rules, to make an NBA trade teams must swap salaries that are within 125% of each other plus $100,000.  Including the various trade exceptions and other loopholes available to GMs, completing NBA trades have become absurdly complicated and takes too long to complete.  Kind of like passing health care legislation.  

Salaries having to match up within a certain dollar threshold isn’t a bad idea, but the difference needs to be greater than 125% plus $100,000.   Simply put, GMs need more flexibility to get deals done.  I propose allowing traded salaries to be within 200% of each other and scrap the trade exception stuff altogether.  Again, the fans would win here because trades are a fun part of following the NBA.

No. 5: Abolish the minimum age rule and expand the NBDL

These two go hand-in-hand, because you can’t have one without the other.  First off, the one-and-done rule doesn’t work.  Frankly, it should be called the one-semester-and-done-rule.  This NBA provision that a player can’t join the league until the equivalent of one college year has passed or he has turned 19 only encourages NCAA basketball programs to be more sleazy and corrupt than they already were.  The kids get no value out of school whatsoever (how many classes do you think O.J. Mayo attended at USC for the one semester he was actually on campus?) and the NBA still inherits raw talent that’s not properly developed.  It’s lose-lose on both sides.

What the NBA should do is fold the WNBA (sorry, ladies), and instead of subsidizing that money pit, subsidize a true farm system with each NBA team having its own minor league club located in the nearest large city until those teams pay for themselves.  And if they really want the NBDL to thrive, impose the one-and-done rule on themselves – i.e. no one can join the NBA until they’re 19 or have played one year in the NBDL.  Imagine LeBron James playing for a full season for the Columbus Cavaliers before joining the Cleveland version of the franchise?  Or Tyreke Evans playing for the Reno Bighorns last season instead of the Memphis Tigers?  You couldn’t sell tickets fast enough and the Versus network would have paid a hell of a lot more for those NBDL TV rights they just acquired.

This would have a number of benefits for the NBA: teams could develop their own talent with their own coaches in their own system (rather than share NBDL teams as we see now, leading to NBA GMs squabbling about playing time for their prospects), second-tier – and maybe some first-tier – cities could prove to NBA Commissioner David Stern whether or not they’re ready for their own franchise, almost NBA-quality basketball would be affordable and available to hundreds of thousands of more fans, and valuable roster spots in the NBA would be given the veterans who can still play rather than raw rookies who need to develop in the NBDL.  By 2020, I want to see NBDL sub-franchises in San Diego, Las Vegas, Seattle (better than nothing), Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Pittsburgh and the many other decent sized markets missing NBA teams right now.

And to not totally jerk with the NCAA, a la MLB any kid who decides to go to college must stay in college for three seasons, making NCAA basketball a much better product…and less corrupt.

No. 6: Reformat the playoffs to be a 16-team, pan-conference tournament

With the Eastern Conference – sans a few top teams – being a long running joke for the last 15 years, fans and pundits alike have been screaming for a 16-team playoff tournament based on the top 16 records, rather than split the playoffs into two conferences.  I’m all for this.  And for those concerned about the 2-2-1-1-1 format being problematic due to geography, this will only come into play in the rare scenarios when a far west team is matched up against a far east team.  Had the playoffs been formatted this way last season, here’s what the first round would have looked like: 1. Cavaliers vs. 16. Bulls, 2. Lakers vs. 15. 76ers, 3. Celtics vs. 14. Heat, 4. Magic vs. 13. Suns, 5. Nuggets vs. 12. Hawks,  6. Spurs vs. 11. Jazz, 7. Blazers vs. 10. Hornets, 8. Rockets vs. 9. Mavericks.  We’d all have been better off not having to watch the 39-win Detroit Pistons participate in the 2009 postseason only to get swept.  I know I’d like those hours back.

No. 7: Institute a "No Ticket Left Behind" campaign

With the technology available to us, there should never be an empty seat at an NBA game.  Not one.  I recently asked a high-level NBA executive why unused seats aren’t sold at a substantial discount at the very last minute before games, and he told me that their franchise’s "research" had shown that season ticket holders don’t like it when someone sits next to them for half the price.  As a season ticket holder who never participated in this survey, I don’t buy this for a second and just think that NBA ticket sales offices/marketing people are lazy. 

First, on the rare occasion when I can’t give away my seats and have to sell them, I never get face value and am lucky to get half my money back (because those rare occasions mean it’s a game against a bad team).  Second, as a fan I want to sit in a stadium filled-to-the-brim with fans.  It makes the experience better for everyone and improves the home team’s chances of winning, too.  And third, I buy season tickets because I want a guaranteed good seat for big games, games I’m available to attend and playoff games, and I’m willing to pay more for that guarantee.

Here’s how this campaign would work.  If a ticket holder knows he/she can’t attend and is unable to give the tickets to someone else, they should be able to contact the team through an online service and get at least half their money back in the form of applied funds for playoff tickets or next season tickets.  The unused tickets then go into a pool and are priced at a steep discount for fans to purchase at the last minute online or directly at the stadium.  Any upper level tickets not used/sold by the ticket holder should be sold for one dollar just to get asses in the seats.  A campaign like this would not only fill arenas (that NBA teams have to pay labor and utility costs regardless of attendance numbers anyway), but would encourage younger and middle-to-lower class Americans to come to games, fostering more fan enthusiasm for the NBA.  So to my aforementioned NBA executive if he’s reading this: how would this be a bad thing?

No. 8: Salaries must be slashed

As mentioned to kick off this column, there’s something wrong when I’m paying almost $150 per ticket and yet my team’s owner is rumored to be losing in the tens of millions of dollars annually to keep our franchise together.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Simply put, the players make too much money.  I’m not sure how to rectify this as there will always be an owner(s) willing to overpay to improve his team.  But the owners can’t have it both ways: overpaying for players and burdening their fans with ridiculously overpriced tickets.  The NBA has already implemented salary restrictions, which is downright un-American but somewhat preserves the league’s competitive balance making it a better business for all involved.  But something more must be done.  Maybe my "No Ticket Left Behind" campaign would bring in enough ancillary revenue from parking, vending and merchandise to get the rest of our season tickets down a bit.  I’d have to see the hard math before knowing for sure.  

Suckers like me will always pay for season tickets, even if it breaks the bank unfortunately. But sanity is desperately needed to get ticket prices down and it starts with player salaries needing to be slashed.

No. 9: Determine the luxury tax based on market size and/or team revenue

The luxury tax is meant to be a mechanism to allow owners who want to spend to spend (almost) at will, but anything over a certain salary cap threshold gets pooled into a fund shared by owners not willing or able to spend, thus bringing some revenue balance to all 30 NBA teams.  The principle of the tax is fine but the threshold is often too low, sending too many teams into paying the tax penalty.

As the fan of a small market team I'm admittedly biased here, but it's not fair for owners like the Nuggets Stan Kroenke to be asked to lose triple what the Lakers lose to put a similar product on the floor (the theory being that small market teams lose money as-is, and then lose even more by paying into the tax to keep top dollar players on the roster).  If a small market owner is willing to shell out as many salary dollars as a big market owner, why is he getting penalized so much for it?  

If the NBA is truly interested in competitive balance, they’d set the tax threshold per team according to that team’s market size and individual BRI (basketball related income).  This would incentivize teams like the Milwaukee Bucks to keep their rosters in-tact rather than being a halfway house for players on their way to a bigger market/richer owner.  Since comparing Milwaukee to Los Angeles isn’t apples to apples, why are their franchises compared that way when it comes to the luxury tax?

No. 10: Overhaul the referee system

Like many of my SB Nation colleagues, I wrote at length about the NBA’s referee problem  when the Tim Donaghy allegations came to light (which, remarkably, has all but disappeared from the sports news cycle).  But it’s worth reiterating my proposals here: we need transparent statistics on every referee, need taller/younger referees who were former basketball players, hire more referees so that individual refs don’t interact frequently with specific players and coaches to foster biases towards them and disallow refs from communicating directly with players during games except for team captains.

So there you have it.  10 ways to improve the best game in the world on the professional level.  If these proposals could be enacted upon soon, the second "Golden Era" may last longer than the first.

Oh, and while we’re at it, I’d like to add an 11th recommendation to be implemented immediately.  Can we please have a moratorium on all broadcasters, writers and, yes, bloggers from saying things like "score the basketball" and "rebound the basketball"?  After all, what else would you be scoring and rebounding with?

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