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Coming out of NBA All-Star Weekend, the topic du jour was the subpar play and ratings for the game itself. But the league has more significant issues to consider.
With a collective bargaining agreement to hash out with the National Basketball Players Association, in addition to regional networks facing bankruptcy, a new national broadcast deal on the horizon and potential expansion, fixing the All-Star Game is far from the top of the to-do list.
One key topic the NBA and NBPA are working on is the potential elimination of the one-and-done rule.
But allowing prospects to join the NBA straight out of high school may not be as inevitable as previously thought.
Like most concepts that seem like a good idea, the application would be complex. Why shouldn’t an adult, who can serve in the armed forces at 18, be able to find gainful employment in the NBA?
From a fundamental point of view, a prospect should have that right. But the NBA and NBPA operate within a closed system. Players, for instance, have agreed to curtail their rights to free speech (can’t criticize an official, can’t publicly demand a trade, etc.). Teams are beholden to minimum salaries and players to maximums.
The NBA is a business. How a potential one-and-done player fits into that mix is a business decision. Protecting veteran jobs remains a priority for the NBPA and its voting ranks. High school seniors have no voice in the negotiation.
If the league wants it badly enough, it must give the union something quid pro quo. Teams have room for only 450 players and 60 two-way contracts, and careers can be short (four to five years on average).
Some agents may favor the rule change for elite prospects and influence their clients’ votes. The sooner players get through their rookie-scale contracts (for picks 1-30), the sooner they can earn significant dollars on their second deals. But most rostered on an NBA team benefit from a smaller player pool.
The team side also has its complications. The NBA wants to avoid scouts in high school gyms. Visibility is already limited to several sanctioned events, but policing that may become more complicated if franchises start to compete to find draftable high school talent.
The draft can already be a crapshoot. For every LeBron James (who entered the league before the rule changed in 2005), a long list of prospects struggled to transition (Kwame Brown, Robert Swift, DeSagana Diop). How eager are teams to gamble with four-year rookie-scale contracts to players right out of high school when plenty of one-and-done players don’t pan out?
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The world has changed, with NCAA players eligible to earn from their names, images and likenesses. Alternatives to college, such as the G League Ignite and Overtime Elite, provide an alternative path.
Another consideration is the free marketing the NCAA provides. Paolo Banchero might have been able to handle the jump to the NBA a year earlier, but the NCCA men’s tournament helped make him a star before he was drafted No. 1 in 2022 by the Orlando Magic.
The NBA has enough interest in the rule change to bring it to CBA negotiations with the NBPA. But it’s too complicated to pencil in as a done deal.
Could Regional Network Crisis Lead to Fewer Games?
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Another sticking point in negotiations is attempting to reduce the need for load management. The challenge in tying player awards or financial incentives to games played is that teams often decide to rest players.
While Commissioner Adam Silver downplayed the notion of reducing the number of games at his annual All-Star Weekend state of the league news conference, behind the scenes, it’s at least a consideration.
Historically, it’s been a no, primarily because it would result in a loss of income, especially when each of the 30 teams has a local broadcast partner expecting a certain number of games.
That may be moot with Bally Sports (via its parent company Diamond Sports Group) facing bankruptcy. More than half the league (16 teams) partner with Bally. Two more are with AT&T SportsNet, whose parent company (Warner Bros. Discovery) is also looking to get out of the regional sports network business (H/T Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal).
A few franchises have lucrative deals, notably the Los Angeles Lakers with Spectrum SportsNet, but by and large, the NBA may need to revamp how it produces and broadcasts locally. And that may open the door to reducing the number of games.
There’s only so much the league can give up at the gate (tickets, concessions, advertising inventory). But this could be the ideal time and circumstance to reduce the number of games, though 72 may be too aggressive.
Can the NBA make it work if each franchise gave up two home games for a 78-game schedule? The national broadcast schedule wouldn’t need to change. The calendar could stay the same, starting in late October, with the regular season wrapping in mid-April and the playoffs in mid-June.
That could be enough to eliminate back-to-backs and reduce the need for players to load-manage. There’s no perfect solution, but it’s not an unreasonable compromise if the NBA, NBPA, arenas and broadcast partners can come to terms for what could be a greater good.
After the league locks in its CBA and network contracts, it will look to expansion, starting the process around 2025. While Las Vegas and Seattle may seem obvious destinations, the NBA is looking closely at the G League’s Capitanes to gauge the viability of Mexico City.
As much as the league would love to expand to Europe, time zones and travel make that impractical. But Mexico City could help the league establish a foothold in Latin and South America.
Seattle has a great history with the SuperSonics, but its market can’t compete with Mexico’s (similar to the Canadian fanbase for the Toronto Raptors).
It’s too early to draw conclusions, but one possible path could be Mexico City joining the Southwest Division (a relatively short flight from the three Texas teams) with the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans headed to the Eastern Conference.
Potential Rule Changes
Per several sources, next season’s most likely rule change will enable coaches to keep their challenge if successful.
The primary concern is keeping games at roughly two hours, 15 minutes. While challenges may average approximately 90 seconds, they can spike to six minutes or even longer.
Another potential change could be the use of a target score, but just for overtime. The G League has experimented with the rule in overtime during the regular season and for fourth quarters during the Winter Showcase in Las Vegas. In comparing regular overtime from the 2021-22 season to target-score overtime pre-Showcase, the length dipped from 13 minutes on average to 8.5.
On using it in NBA fourth quarters, reviews among executives, scouts and personnel were generally sour (“Why?” was a common refrain). Still, the response was generally favorable for using it to limit overtime.
That would prevent overlong broadcasts and overloading player minutes, like Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard’s playing 46 minutes in a double-overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings on Friday.