Sports Nut

Howard Hughes Has a Plan to Fix the NBA

The Eastern Conference is awful. There are too many bad games on TV. Should we burn it to the ground and start over?

Howard Hughes, James Dolan.
Howard Hughes, the movie mogul, and James Dolan, owner of the Knicks.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettman/Getty Images, Tim Clayton/Getty Images.

Lost in the midst of a manic free agency period is an uncomfortable secret about the upcoming NBA season: Most of it is going to be pretty bad.

Blame the Eastern Conference, which, unfortunately, makes up 50 percent of the league. Look past the LeBron-led Cavaliers and the aggressively competent Boston Celtics, and you will find a collection of teams so disappointing that to call them ragtag would be a disservice to both rags and tags.

Consider Philadelphia. The 76ers may be the most exciting team in the East, even though they have spent five straight years actively trying to lose as many games as possible. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and co. will need time to jell, however, and the Sixers would be best served by another year in the draft lottery. But, in a Producers-esque turn of events—Springtime for Hinkie, if you will—they’ll probably be good enough to make the playoffs in next year’s pathetic Eastern Conference.

According to FiveThirtyEight, 22 of the NBA’s best 30 players will be playing out West in 2016–17. The previously most-lopsided mark came in 2003–04, when 21 of the top 30 players were consolidated in one conference. That was a godawful year for basketball, one that culminated in a mercifully brief rock fight between the Detroit Pistons and Karl Malone’s Los Angeles Lakers. (The Eastern Conference Pistons won those finals, which perhaps hurts my larger argument. I’m hoping that putting this caveat between parentheses will allow us to ignore this inconvenient fact and just move on. It was a bad season, what more do you people want?)

The enormous imbalance between the NBA’s two conferences isn’t necessarily a catastrophe for the league, as the good teams are popular enough to carry the duds. Turner Sports and ESPN are entering the second season of a nine-year, $24 billion contract with the NBA. The networks are obliged to carry 164 nationally televised games a year, meaning they have to broadcast plenty of miserable matchups. Due to the nature of time zones and the manner in which our planet rotates around its axis, Eastern Conference games will always fill the majority of early prime-time slots. The games showcased on TNT on Thursday nights and on ABC on Sunday afternoons are the only ones scheduled for their respective time slots, meaning there’s no way to “flex” in better games. The only way out of a Thursday Knicks-Bulls game on TNT will be a civilization-ending asteroid strike. And if fans want to watch good teams that aren’t on national TV, they have to pony up for NBA League Pass, the premium service that broadcasts out-of-market games.

For a league that is often celebrated for its progressive approach to media, this is a surprisingly rigid and archaic system. To find something similar, you’d have to teleport to prewar Hollywood.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the five major movie studios controlled every aspect of the medium. They consolidated this power and maintained their dominance thanks to a practice called “block booking.” Rather than allowing theaters to buy films one at a time, the big studios forced them to buy large packages of movies. Because of this bundling system, the studios had little incentive to make all their movies watchable and entertaining. Instead, MGM could package an all-time classic like Gone With the Wind with a dud like Judge Hardy and Son, confident in the knowledge that theaters would cough up the cash for the latter so they could have the privilege of screening the former. What’s more, these studios also owned their own massive theater chains and sold film packages to themselves, meaning they could set the market as they pleased.

The Supreme Court outlawed block booking in 1948’s United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. but sent the issue to a lower court to handle the implementation. Before that court could make a ruling—one that likely would’ve been ineffectual and watered down—Howard Hughes saw an opportunity. Though profitable, Hughes’ RKO routinely got crushed by its “Big Five” competitors. Rather than creep along per usual, Hughes did something odd: He went to the government, admitted antitrust guilt, and volunteered to split up his studio. It was a clever way to level the playing field, and, in that regard, it worked. Hughes forced his competitors’ hands, and the monopolistic studio system came crumbling down from within. The onus to purchase movie packages disappeared, and bad films had to fend for themselves on the open market.

While there’s a lot of common ground here, this isn’t a perfect analogy. There’s not a great point of comparison to the movie studios controlling the theater chains. That would be like if Adam Silver came over after dinner and made you watch Brooklyn Nets games because the NBA owned your television set. And are NBA teams the studios or the movies? If it’s the latter, then the Golden State Warriors are Gone With the Wind, and the Brooklyn Nets are a short film about how cigarettes cure laryngitis. But really, smartly run NBA franchises teams do operate like the well-run studio machines. Over an 82-game season, they release more hits than duds, because they’re able to discover talent, consolidate it, and lock it up with long-term contracts.

It must be incredibly frustrating for those Eastern Conference teams that can’t figure out how to compete—those RKO-like franchises that lose year after year. The Knicks, for instance, aren’t exactly producing smash hits every season. Sure, they’re making a little money, but that’s only because the system is rigged. Now picture James Dolan, sick of watching his big-market team humiliate itself repeatedly. It would take an incredibly greedy and hapless owner to think something like Hughes’ plan would work for the NBA. I think we just found our prime candidate, a guy who’d be ready and willing to burn the whole league to the ground.

Wouldn’t it be a gas to tell the U.S. federal government to tear up the NBA’s lucrative TV contract and force the league to start from scratch? He’d even get a JD & the Straight Shot song out of it.

Hey Mr. Judge Man, give the people what they crave. Listen to JD, man, it’s the league he’s tryin’ to save.

Next thing you know, Sacramento Kings owner and disruption lover Vivek Ranadivé joins Dolan’s mutiny. Never ones to shy away from potentially saving a few bucks, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers join the party. The collective bargaining agreement is renegotiated to eliminate salary caps, and every player is freed from his current contract. The Knicks sign Karl-Anthony Towns to a billion-year covenant à la Scientology. The Orlando Magic field a squad made up entirely of unpaid interns. Kevin Durant plays on a new team every quarter. The sport begins to resemble The Running Man, but, on the bright side, the East is relatively competitive again.

Not to be a downer, but Hughes’ plan was a disaster for RKO, and it greatly wounded Hollywood. Postwar prosperity meant people could afford to entertain themselves with nonmovie things like vacations and sports, and the ascension of television saw a large swath of Hollywood’s audience siphoned away. The broken-up studios cratered financially, and it took years for the industry to become stable again.

By 1958, Howard Hughes began his descent into madness. He locked himself in his private movie theater where he sat, naked and alone, for weeks on end. That sounds almost as bad as having to watch the Knicks 82 times a year.