Why the NBA season should start on Christmas

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NBC Sports

Why the NBA season should start on Christmas

The sheer joy of the NBA on Christmas Day can’t come soon enough. Injuries to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson and other stars have sidelined some of the league’s top box-office draws, throwing a wet blanket on ratings and challenging audiences to find their bearings in the early going.

The dip in viewership has stirred up a sticky “What’s wrong with the NBA?” debate among those inside and outside the sport. The NBA added to the conversation with a reported schedule proposal that would include a midseason tournament, a play-in for the playoffs, a reseeding of the four conference finalists and a reduced number of overall games.

Talking about reform can be healthy, especially when framed as a way of making the on-court product better. But I have an idea to make the NBA even more compelling: Make Christmas Day the NBA’s Opening Day. Like, actually start the season on December 25.

Christmas Day in the NBA is incredible. For many across the world, the NBA has become as synonymous with the holiday as Santa Claus and candy canes. The most compelling stars and teams are matched up on network television for the first time all year, announcing to the larger audience that the NBA season has officially arrived. 

But of course, the NBA arrives much earlier than Christmas Day. The regular season starts two months before that, in mid-October. 

It’s hard to quantify how much juice the NBA loses by officially starting in October and unofficially starting on Christmas Day. It feels like millions of fans are missing out on the excitement and surprise of finding out about Luka Doncic, the L.A. partnerships and the other revelations of the early season. 

It’s a little like looking under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning only to find that the presents have already been unwrapped. You still get the presents, but isn’t the surprise half the fun?

When I go to holiday parties this time of year and tell people what I do for a living, it’s usually met with “Oh, cool! I love the NBA … but I’ll start paying attention to it on Christmas” remark that feels more like a half-hearted apology than anything.

It’s a bummer. The more this exchange happens, I ask myself: Why does the NBA start its season in October? For other sports, the answer to that question comes down to a very real and obvious thing: the weather. The NBA doesn’t have this problem. Unlike the NFL, MLB, tennis or the PGA Tour, the NBA is exclusively played indoors, making it seasonally agnostic.

Starting the NBA season in October is therefore a choice. And I’m not sure it’s the best one. 

There’s a reason why the NBA keeps all of its national broadcasts on cable networks until Dec. 25. The NFL hogs the national sports conscious for the entirety of the fall season. On top of that, the MLB playoffs are in full swing. The NBA regular season tipped off on October 22 this year, the same night as Game 1 of the World Series. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, Astros-Nationals drew 12 million viewers as compared to the 3 million who watched Lakers-Clippers. And that was the NBA’s juiciest matchup, by far.

Starting the NBA season on Christmas Day would sidestep the autumnal crush. Even more, a Dec. 25 launch would capitalize on the undeniable allure of a grand opening event. Look no further than the lockout-shortened year of 2011, when the NBA saw its highest average Christmas Day ratings since it expanded to a five-game slate in 2008.

At the time, conventional wisdom suggested that casual NBA fans had largely checked out after a very ugly and painful labor dispute. Instead, the NBA drew monster ratings on Christmas Day, averaging 6.3 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch tracking, which is still the highest mark of the last 11 years.

Some of that jump can be explained by an absolutely loaded Christmas Day menu, filled with compelling stories in every marquee market. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers, while LeBron James’ Heatles watched the Dallas Mavericks receive their championship rings in an NBA Finals rematch. There was also the Lob City Clippers, an actually good New York Knicks team and a plucky Thunder squad featuring a young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

“A Christmas Day start could have its benefits, mainly cutting out those lower-rated early months of the season,” Jon Lewis, the sports ratings guru behind Sports Media Watch, told NBC Sports. 

More important to this discussion, the success of the 2011 Christmas Day opener carried over through the season. According to Lewis, 2011-12 was a record-setting year for ABC, TNT and NBATV, despite a crunched 66-game schedule that saw teams play games on three consecutive days. 

Of course, a Christmas start would inevitably mean a later finish to the season, and Lewis warns that the deeper the season goes into the summer, the tougher it will be to draw fans’ interest. This is where we have to follow the NBA’s lead and agree that the 82-game schedule isn’t ideal anymore. In its latest proposal to teams, the NBA reportedly suggested reducing the season to 78 games in order to add a 30-team midseason tournament.

However, it’s my belief that the NBA should go further and lean into the “less is more” model that has buoyed the NFL’s bottom line. In 2017, Rockets GM Daryl Morey wasn’t sold that 82 games was the optimal number from a business sense, telling me, “the idea that the NFL would make more money with 82 games is absurd. A shorter schedule increases the importance of each game, which drives TV ratings, which drives the lion's share of money for most top pro leagues."

To that end, it’s hard to see how a modest reduction from 82 games to 78 games would make regular-season games matter more from a fan’s perspective. It also remains to be seen whether a brand-new, in-season tournament would do enough to drive up the interest to make up for the missing four games (per team) of revenue.

So how many games is enough to make the regular season matter? To me, a 66-game schedule -- a more spaced-out 2011-12 season -- that runs from Christmas to July would hit the sweet spot, making regular-season games more meaningful and drive up advertising premiums on a per-game basis. Here’s a general framework of my proposed season:

Season opener: Dec. 25
Trade deadline: Early April
All-Star: Mid-April
Playoffs start: Early June
NBA Finals: Late July
NBA draft: Early August
Free agency: Mid-August
Vegas Summer League: Early September 

With fewer games in its inventory, local team revenue as a whole may take a hit in the short term, but long-term gains could follow with the elimination of the back-to-back scourge (and all the load management talk that stains the conversation), leading to a healthier and more exciting product. 

It also makes sense to institute a gradual multi-year shaving of games to ease stakeholders’ concerns. The league could start with 78 games in 2021-22, then move to 72 games in 2022-23 and 66 games in 2023-24 with a Christmas Day start. 

There are other benefits from the Christmas Day bump that goes beyond avoiding the NFL and MLB overlap. Shifting the season later would keep the All-Star game in the springtime (hint: not freezing) and nudge the increasingly-buzzy Vegas Summer League into a time when stepping outside doesn’t feel like the heat of a thousand suns. There’s a reason why the NFL is doing the Super Bowl in Miami this February. It’s about making these signature events as attractive as possible for sponsors, investors and stakeholders.

This drastic change to the schedule doesn’t come without risk. Shifting the season would undoubtedly be met with resistance from those who like things just the way they are (a stance one NBA executive already publicly mocked). Historically, the league has tried to avoid playing games in July, when viewership tends to drop during summer vacation, but, with a host of international superstars spread across the league, the NBA Finals might be so compelling it could earn “summer-proof” status. Pushing the season back might also discourage some players from participating in the Summer Olympics, although this would likely only apply to the Finals teams (the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris begin on July 28). That said, the NBA is the only major American sports league that currently allows its top professional players to play in the Olympic games with no regular season conflicts.

But if the NBA is looking for ways to optimize the schedule and get more eyeballs on the sport, prioritizing a Christmas Day start feels like an exciting strategy worthy of consideration. A new audience is just tuning in when much of the season has already been decided. By now we know the MVP candidates. We largely know which teams are good and which teams aren’t. In 2017, I found that 80 percent of the variability in the final standings can be explained purely by the standings halfway through the season. In other words, NBA standings don’t change much after a couple months. This doesn’t happen in other sports.

The NBA has long been praised for its forward thinking. With the league looking for ways to optimize the game and its business model, it’s time to change the way it looks at the schedule. Let’s start the season on Christmas Day and unwrap the presents together.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.