Sports

The NBA’s Restart Shows the Power of Addition by Contraction

Giannis Antetokounmpo goes for a shot while P.J. Tucker defends.
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks goes up for a shot against P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets on Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The NBA’s summer restart has exposed some truths about the current American experience. Daily coronavirus testing, contact tracing, incentivized isolation, and all the other features of a competent pandemic response are indeed possible; it’s just that they must serve the financial interests of an absurdly wealthy and politically connected company in order to be implemented.

If you’re able to look past the glaring evidence of societal decay, you’ll notice that the Walt Disney World bubble has also revealed some basic truths about the league itself. Namely, that professional basketball is better when there are fewer teams.

Of the NBA’s 30 squads, only 22 were invited to participate in the restart. Those who weren’t—the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Golden State Warriors—missed the cut because they were not within six games of a playoff spot when the NBA suspended operations on March 11. Every additional person inside that bubble increases the odds of a potential outbreak, and no lives should be risked for the chance to watch a few more Knicks games in 2020. The nation has suffered enough.

A big, albeit superficial concern about the restart was that the quality of play would suffer. Teams had gone months without practicing, and so rust was to be expected. However, those worries were instantly allayed by Thursday’s reopening double-header, which produced two compelling and fun games. Since then, the compressed schedule has served up a steady stream of close, high-scoring affairs. Friday alone gave us two overtime thrillers (Trailblazers 140, Grizzlies 135; Rockets 152, Mavericks 149). On Tuesday, the bubble got its first buzzer-beater when the Suns’ Devin Booker hit a fade-away over both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The virtual fans couldn’t believe their virtual eyes.

Over the past decade, the average margin of victory in NBA games has hovered around 11 points. Through the first 31 games of the restart, that average is less than 8 points. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but you only have to watch the games to see that the play has been crisp and competitive. Total duds are rare, though they tend to include the Washington Wizards, the last team to make the cut.

This high quality of play shouldn’t be a mystery. It’s not due to the motivating virtual fans or the healing powers of Walt Disney World’s Typhoon Lagoon. When you get rid of bad teams, the games are better.

Granted, it’s still early in the restart. Teams will start playing back-to-backs this week, and the increased grind may have an adverse effect. But the NBA’s standard 82-game regular season is too long under normal conditions. A seven-month slog with 30 teams will always produce a trove of meaningless games, and coaches of contenders will frequently sit their stars to save their bodies for the playoffs. When the league suspended play in March, each team had about a quarter of its schedule left to go. Not a soul on Earth needed to see 17 more Cleveland Cavaliers games.

The best thing the NBA could do to improve the quality of its product is contract, permanently. With fewer squads, every matchup would feature deeper, more talented rosters. This is true no matter how many franchises are removed. In a 28-team league, the rest of the NBA would gain 10 starting-caliber players. Imagine if the bubble teams got to bolster their lineups with the cream of the castoffs? Trae Young could even make this current Wizards squad watchable.

The NBA used to be smaller. There were just eight teams in the league from 1955 to 1961, and still just 18 in the mid-1970s. The league has ballooned since then, growing to 22, then 23, 25, 27, 29, and the present 30 when the Charlotte Hornets rejoined the league in 2004.

Now, the chances the NBA would eliminate a single franchise, let alone two or four or 12, are less than minuscule. It’s the same reason the league is so reluctant to pare down the schedule. The quality of play would improve, but the owners would have to sacrifice millions upon millions of dollars to do it. Considering the lengths they’ve gone to in Orlando to maximize their revenues, they’d sooner build 1,000 dystopian disease bubbles before even thinking about returning the league to the size it was in 1976.

There’s also the argument that contraction would be a financial and civic disaster for franchises located in smaller markets. Once you let a franchise into the league, removing it is a cruel broadside against an entire city and fan base. (The move is to get rid of the Clippers first, obviously.)

So what’s the solution here? Uproxx writer Robby Kalland proposed a smart idea that would recreate the bubble’s abridged experience without robbing any cities of their teams. He suggests an in-season relegation, wherein, after the All-Star break, the 20 or so best teams continue to play for a shot at the playoffs and beyond. It’s extremely clever, even if midseason culling only remedies part of the problem with a 30-team league. But it’s at least a start: The NBA could enjoy the benefits of breaking up without having to break any hearts.

No matter how it’s achieved, fewer teams will mean better games. It’s addition by contraction. The math is obvious, and with the restart, the league has inadvertently been showing its work.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.