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What we’ve learned about the NBA in this truncated, COVID-19 hampered season

From the play-in tourney to lower TV ratings to declining fundamentals, there’s plenty to unpack

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LA Lakers forward LeBron James coaches up teammates Andre Drummond (2) and Anthony Davis. The NBA playoff season is near.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, center, talks to center Andre Drummond (2) and forward Anthony Davis (3) from the sideline in Los Angeles. James, who last year supported the idea of a play-in tourney, has changed his tune in 2021.

Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Another NBA regular season is winding to a close. Time for the state-of-the-league address.

Let’s see, 1) LeBron James is growing creakier (and grumpier) by the minute — apparently, he does age, after all, and not in Tom-Brady years; 2) nobody seemed to miss the 10 games that were axed from the regular-season schedule (how about 20? 30?); 3) the defending champs appear headed for the play-in round (and James suddenly thinks that format is a bad idea); 4) fundamentals are (still) in decline, says at least one coach (stating the obvious); 5) so are NBA ratings; 6) and, the good news: in a much-needed shakeup of the league, the top six teams in the Western Conference are non-super teams.

The play-in

James missed 20 games with an ankle injury, and then played in two games before reinjuring the ankle, causing him to miss six more games. James is 36 going on 40; he joined the league at 19 and he’s already played in more than 1,300 games and averaged 38 minutes per; that’s a lot of mileage.

During the 2018-19 season, he missed 26 games, as well, after being largely indestructible before that. The Lakers, who also have seen James’ latest sidekick, Anthony Davis, miss 35 games, have slipped to seventh in the standings with two games to go. The teams that finish seventh through 10th in the conference standings must compete in a play-in tournament to advance to the playoffs.

“Whoever came up with that (expletive) needs to be fired,” said James, resorting to four-letter words, as usual, when bigger words elude him.

That’s what James says now. In March 2020, when it was other teams looking at the play-in, he said, “One thing you can’t just do is go straight to the playoffs, because it discredits the 60-plus games that guys had been fighting for that position. You got Portland. You got Memphis … New Orleans and Sacramento tinkering around there … so if there’s five or 10 games left … why not those guys battle it out? Make them play each other all five games?”

At the time, it seemed like a fine idea … for other teams.

Fundamentally speaking …

Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach, lamented recently the decline of fundamentals among this generation of players, such as boxing out and getting back in transition. “Every night I see teams let a guy run past them in transition for a layup,” he said. 

This is not news. In 2015, Kobe Bryant made the same complaint, blaming the trend of kids learning the game through AAU club ball.

“Horrible, terrible AAU basketball,” Bryant told ESPN. “It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game.”

He also noted, “I just think European players are just way more skillful. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. … We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

Which is why more than 100 European players are on NBA rosters.

NBA ratings decline

Bobby Burack of Outkick wrote this week, “The NBA ratings are worse than we thought last month when we found out they were worse than we thought … 13% from last year’s disastrous COVID-interrupted, bubble season.”

How low was that? Last season games on ABC averaged a record-low 2.95 million viewers. With the pandemic easing, those numbers still haven’t improved.

The reasons for this could be the politicization of the league, changing viewing habits and interests brought by the pandemic, a declining NBA product, the parity-killing rise of super teams, etc. The NBA, in a desperate late-season push to improve ratings, has resorted to using super hero images superimposed on the screen for special broadcasts.

Yeah, that’ll help.

Shorter is better?

Because of the pandemic and last year’s delayed bubble season, the NBA had to do a quick turnaround to start another season (less than two months after the NBA Finals). The league did this by starting the 2020-21 season in December instead of October and by cutting its schedule from 82 to 72 games. The NBA should make these changes permanent.

The league cannot compete with the NFL in any way — even the NFL draft buildup gets more attention than the NBA — so why start in October? There has been talk of shortening the season over the years, and this season gave the league a chance to experiment with it. It could result in better quality of play, fewer (healthy) players sitting out games to rest (“load management”), fewer injuries, and it makes the regular-season games more meaningful. It could be argued that cutting 10 games is not enough.

How about 20?