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Why lopsided outcomes are a losing result for the NBA — and its fans

One-sided blowouts lack the fun and drama most fans crave, and there has been a rash of them this season

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Utah Jazz forward Juwan Morgan (16) and guard Miye Oni (81) reach for a rebound against Sacramento Kings guard Justin James (10) and forward Chimezie Metu (25) during game in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, April 28, 2021. The Jazz won, 154-105. It was the most points scored in Jazz history and the largest win in franchise history.

Hector Amezcua, Associated Press

In a scenario that has been played out repeatedly in NBA arenas everywhere, there was a blowout last weekend, and this was a doozy, even by this year’s standards. The Pacers defeated the Thunder by 57 points. Score it 152-95. It was the largest home loss in NBA history and it could’ve been worse. At one point, the Pacers led by 67 points.

Lopsided scores have become fairly commonplace in the NBA this season. In early April the Raptors beat the Warriors by 53 points, 130-77. Those same Warriors have lost games by 53, 39, 31, 30, 26, 26, 26, 25, 22, 22 and 21 — and they’re a middle-of-the-pack team.

Among other notable blowouts, the Mavericks beat the Clippers by 51, the Jazz beat the Kings by 49, and the Grizzlies beat the Rockets by 49.

It has been a season of blowouts and this is a problem. The reason people watch sports more than any other form of programming or entertainment is the drama; the outcome is unknown. But these days, the outcome is often clear by halftime. For fans, it’s like knowing the ending of a movie shortly after settling in with their popcorn.

The average margin of victory (MOV) this season is 12.3 points per game, and 20.5% of games are won by 20-plus points. By contrast, NFL games are decided, on average, by about 9 ½ points — a little more than one touchdown.

It’s not a problem the NBA can fix by pretending their players are Marvel Comics characters, which is what they’re doing. No, really. Read on.

Tim Reynolds, a reporter for The Associated Press, has been tracking the blowouts this season. He reports there have been 28 games in which one team held a lead of 40 or more points. During one weekend in April, Reynolds tweeted, “Friday and Saturday in the NBA: 18 games, 4 decided by 44 or more points, a 22.6-point average win margin, one game decided by 5 points or less.”

The NBA of course loves close endings because they’re good entertainment for TV and fans, and that’s good for business. The league’s rules are slanted to promote close games (most notably, the rules that allow teams to foul for profit when they’re trailing, not to mention the endless timeouts). But that hasn’t been enough to create close games this season.

Some blame the short offseason for the MOV problem. After ending the COVID-19 bubble season in October 2020 — which is when a new season usually starts — the NBA rushed to start the 2020-21 season 51 days later, in December. The players are tired, or so goes the speculation.

Nonsense. The rise of the MOV predates this season. According to research conducted by Redband Sports, from 2010 to early 2019 the average MOV was between 10.6 and 11.3 points. In 2020 it was 11.8 and this year 12.3.

As one story on Complex Network put it in a headline, “The NBA is not very fun now.” One way we quantify the “fun” factor is via NBA TV viewership, and viewing is down 50% from the already reduced numbers of recent years. NBA ratings are even down 10% from last year, and last year was an all-time low. To put it another way, NBA ratings are down about 50% since 2011-12.

The league isn’t fun for many reasons: The lopsided scores, poor defense (blame this on a league that has pretty much legislated against defense), the high number of fouls called per game, the increasing number of 3-point shots (too much of a good thing), the increased scoring (too much of a good thing; see defense). This hasn’t helped either: The last 10 years has seen the league dominated by a handful of so-called superteams in which players choose up sides as if they’re on the playground and form unbeatable combinations that, for all practical purposes, eliminate 90% of the NBA’s teams from the championship chase. The lack of a hard salary cap enables teams to stack up the talent. Given that fact alone, why is anyone surprised at the growing number of lopsided games?

For years the league (and the media) have promoted LeBron James obsessively, pinning its hopes on him as a draw, but there is no sign it is working anymore, if it ever did. He is not pulling in viewership a la Michael Jordan, whose retirement coincided with a precipitous drop in TV viewers. His surly mien and inane remarks haven’t helped.

The NBA revealed a certain desperation this month when it began presenting its star players as Marvel comic superheroes on special TV broadcasts. Seriously. Select players are followed everywhere on the TV screen by the image of a superhero they are supposed to represent while the broadcasters play along and yuck it up in the booth. It’s a transparent attempt to boost its ratings for the season — but for whom, 6-year-olds?

A silly gimmick is not going to remedy what ails the NBA.