Culture of Hoops

5 Ways to Shorten NBA Games Without Ruining Basketball

Image courtesy of Michael E. Lee/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Michael E. Lee/Flickr.

Let me begin by applauding Adam Silver for his clear and present willingness to think outside the box and approach previously undiscussed issues surrounding the NBA as an attempt to better the game. I Applaud the effort, not the execution.

Early in the season, it was widely reported that the NBA was looking at some potentially game-changing … well … changes to the game, including limiting free throws to one attempt worth two points and shortening games from 48 minutes to 44.

I have been reluctant to grant the premise that lengthy games are an issue to begin with, but understanding that not everyone shares that perspective, I thought I might attempt to light a candle rather than curse the darkness and present some options that I think could achieve what many want without drastically altering the nature of the game I love.

5. Clock reform

I’d prefer not to change the structure and pace of the game too much, which is part of why this is really two handcuffed rules. But if the clock ran through fouls, free-throw shots, out-of-bounds situations, and any other time it would normally stop, you could likely cut out a lot of the stalling that takes place in an NBA game.

You allow for strategic stoppages of the clock in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime because in close games, it is important to have a myriad of options available (except one we will get to in a minute) for stopping the clock in an attempt to manage possessions. There is also already precedent for having a different set of rules govern crunch time situations with instant replay.

Earlier in the game though, let’s keep it moving. I don’t need to watch some dude take 30 seconds to wipe his shoes off before inbounding the ball or take time to have debates on the merits of net neutrality in between free-throws. I assume that’s what they’re talking about, anyway.

Speaking of free throws …

Having a clock for the free shot could save a ton of time. Rather than cut into the parts of the game that we came to see, we should try shortening NBA games by cutting out all the slack in the middle and guys standing around waiting to take free throws is not something anyone pays to see.

Get to the line, keep the game clock running as discussed above, get your shot up in 12 seconds or less and be done with it. This could also easily cut out a lot of excess arguing. Bark at the ref all you like, but you better be ready because the free throws are coming faster. Which reminds me, there would need to be some kind of rule about guys getting into position for free throws as well. This could all be enforced by giving out technicals for teams and players that delay in a similar fashion to the way judgement-call, delay-of-game warnings are currently handed out.

Once the foul is called, the teams and refs would have only a certain amount of time (I don’t know exactly, someone smarter than me would have to figure that out) to be in position and then take the free-throws.

Keeping the game clock running would be a major incentive for everyone to keep a move on during events previously described as “stoppages,” and putting a clock on the free throws would mitigate much of the potentially lost time or oddities to stats caused by keeping the game clock always going.

The goal of these two new rules would be to get through the actual in-game time a bit quicker without changing the dynamics and stats you would expect to find in a normal 48-minute basketball game. But since they both could potentially change the way the game is played, they come in at the bottom of this list.

4. Sponsors on jerseys

Putting sponsors on jerseys won’t in-and-of-itself lead to shorter games, but it may be the single biggest key in doing so in a pragmatic world.

There is one simple reason why the next two suggestions on this list are unlikely to happen in a pragmatic world: money.

The fact is, there are a ton of ways to both shorten basketball games and return them to a purer version of themselves, but many of those ways involve allocating less time for advertisers. The NBA is a billion-dollar industry and with even more money to accrue and countless powerful enemies to potentially make, there is little incentive for them to cut into their own pockets in an effort to better the game.

Therefore, I suggest, as an off-setting compromise, that we allow the next two suggestions on the list (in some form) in exchange for an explosion of sponsorship, most specifically to include team uniforms.

Yes, like the do in football. Fútbol. The game where you kick the ball with you feet. Fine … soccer.

One of the best things about taking in the beautiful game is that there are no commercials to interrupt play. As a result, the games are over in a much more timely fashion and last I checked the EPL, UEFA, and the devil’s cousin, FIFA, aren’t exactly hurting for cash.

I’ve heard the idea for sponsored jerseys bandied about in NBA circles and it used to make me sick to my stomach. But if it can be used as an offset for some of these good ideas and not just to enhance the money they are already making, I think we can come to some sort of an agreement.

So … superimpose graphical advertisements on the crowd or right on the court for all I care. Dress NBA players up like NASCAR drivers and have the poor play-by-play guy read nonsensical gibberish about products—products that couldn’t be less related to basketball or athletic endeavor if they were called “Body Poison”—at every possible break in the action until his tongue falls out of his head.

Just don’t stop the game and we’ll call it even.

3. Eliminate pre-game, shorten halftime

“And now … the starting center … for your Los Angeles Lakers … Roooobbbberrttt Saaaaaacreeeeeeeeeee!”

Unless Mr. and Mrs. Sacre are in the crowd, nobody cares to hear Bob’s name screamed while the lights are dimmed and the music blares … in November.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am pro-spectacle. I love pre-game intros and booming announcer voices, and that song they used to play when the Chicago Bulls came out in the ’90s. The drama and theater of it all is a part of the allure.

But we’ve cheapened it to the point that not only does it feel remarkably silly much of the time, but it also now cuts into the experience of the actual game.

I have been reticent to admit at times that sports in general need to fit into everyone else’s “busy” schedules at each step of the way. The integrity of the game should matter more than whether or not it fits conveniently between Vampire Diaries marathons and whatever next distraction swallows up Twitter.

But it can be frustrating to tune into a 7:00 p.m. scheduled game only to have it start at 7:15 because they have to hype the hell out of every man on the roster and coaching staff of an 0-14 Philadelphia 76ers team.

How about earning the right to be hyped? Dramatic intros should be saved for the players and teams that earn a playoff spot and play in the games that matter most. Let’s start the game at 7:00 (or whatever) during the regular season; and while we’re at it, do we really need our hometown homerrific commentators to give us the same three keys to every game every time?

We live in an age of Twitter and 24-hour sports networks, along with dingbat bloggers like myself, all for the sake of giving insatiable sports fans their daily fix of everything you can think of from unsubstantiated trade rumors to personal drama to fantasy to in-game strategy. It is unlikely that anyone watching the game is going to hear something, five minutes before it starts, that they haven’t heard already. And there certainly isn’t anything done in those moments that couldn’t also be accomplished during the early parts of actual game time.

The same can be said for the halftime reports to a slightly lesser extent. Sometimes the experts and analysts will have some good insights to share at the midway point, but just as often the banter is filled with fluff that will be irrelevant by the end of the game.

Maybe this is my baseball background speaking, but analyzing one half of basketball for as long as we do is utterly baffling to me. So much can change through the course of a game or a season, and, as we already discussed, there are more avenues than ever to quench the thirst of having talking heads argue about your favorite team.

So, I suggest—if the goal is to entice an audience that doesn’t want to have to commit a three-and-a-half- to four-hour block of their time—that we cut the fluff at the beginning and middle of the game that really isn’t serving any purpose that isn’t better served elsewhere.

No more pre-game intros for regular season games. Start the games at the scheduled time. And pre-fluff can be done in the previous half-hour-long pre-game show. Shorten halftime to a highlight package and a few short points of analysis.

Oh, and stop bothering the coaches during games. Only a tertiary relation here, but seriously, that isn’t helping anybody. We have plenty of time for all the stuff that surrounds the games we love. During the game, let the game be the focus.

2. Time-out reform

There are too many time-outs in NBA basketball games.

Notice I specified NBA basketball games. No one has ever called a time-out in a pickup game I’ve played in. My dad used to say, “basketball is about being ahead when the other guy can’t stand up anymore.”

In my opinion, the most underrated element of the game in the national—or any other—media is endurance. But this is also due to the fact that the modern NBA game, with all the extra TV time-outs, has obscured its importance to some degree.

A player’s endurance still plays a major role under this structure but I believe that eliminating (at least some of) these TV time-outs would save the viewer—also known as the loyal customer—a lot of time, which is very much in vogue these days, while simultaneously providing a purer, breakneck version of the game with fewer interruptions to the action and a heavier reliance on endurance and team depth.

As I mentioned above with the offsetting suggestion of an expansion of sponsorship, a big hurdle to the implementation of this idea would be the lost revenue but there is another problem.

Players may hate the idea of fewer time-outs to keep them healthy, rested, and in the game. Especially star players.

There is also a health concern and these guys are already asked to play a schedule that is borderline criminal and many of these suggestions would only exacerbate that problem.

My position is that each game should be an immense challenge of endurance but the season schedule should not. No basketball player should ever be asked to play four games in five nights.

This is the part where someone jumps in and says, “Okay, you want to get rid of time-outs, pre-game, halftime, and now you’re pulling the ‘fewer regular season games’ card? When is the NBA supposed to make any money?”

First, I think a compromise can be reached on the time-outs whereby we could at least try keeping “20-second TOs” to 20 seconds and tightening up the others as well. Secondly, I think the sponsorship on the jerseys would be an advertising coup that would more than make up for it. Third, the NFL, and soccer analogies I already mentioned, prove that you don’t have to flood the market with your product in order to continue to make money off it.

If you tailor your product to a 21st century mindset where things happen quickly and people have enough entertainment options to make Walt Disney blush, while also bowing to the best nature of the beautiful game at the heart of what you are selling, you can make more with less.

Fewer games, less fluff, fewer time-outs, fewer commercials … more customers.

Don’t just be more, be better. And people will respect that with their wallets.

1. Officiating/rule reform

Want to make the game better, shorter, more profitable, and not have to make a single sacrifice that will cost you a dime? Then you, NBA, need to fix the broken way in which games are officiated.

Nothing slows down the game more, interrupts pace more abruptly, or is in general a bigger pain in the ass than prolific whistling.

Not from the players, that would be awesome and I would pay to see guys executing crossovers, a whistlin’ while they work.

Of course, though, I mean the zebras and their propensity to insert themselves into the game. I’ve made my feelings on this matter crystal clear in an in-depth way before and do not wish to retread but an aspect of it that I never considered at the time was that fixing the very problems I outline would have the obvious and necessary consequence of speeding up the game in a natural way.

I concluded that piece thusly:

“[Referee issues] could, and should, all be handled by the NBA. Clarify that the block is 90/10, tie goes to the offensive player. Impose a two-second rule. Unequivocally eliminate the make-up call. But most importantly, let ‘em play. Just stop blowing the whistle so much … the refs should only be there to make sure things don’t get out of control, they should not be there to be in control.”

Every time the whistle blows, the clock stops. You want games over quicker? Let ’em play and get all this other nonsense out of the way.

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