Solving the NBA's Scheduling and Load Management Issues With Doubleheaders
NBA doubleheaders? NBA doubleheaders.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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As should be abundantly clear from this article's title, no I'm still not ready to write about the actual Sixers yet. I woke up thinking about the Hawks series on July 5th and those 15 minutes I spent playing a mental highlight reel of Games 4-7 damn near ruined what was otherwise a perfectly relaxing and intoxicated 4th of July weekend. Hit me up in person or over DM if you want to discuss the particulars of a potential Simmons-LaVine swap, perhaps, but otherwise I can't do nuttin' for ya man.
Also, while I'm writing this, we're about an hour away from the start of a playoff series that I'm told is going to represent the NBA Finals -- like, whichever team wins are going to be the champions for this season -- but as far as I can tell it has all the dramatic heft of a Phillies-Marlins series in mid-May. Not trying to be one of those people who whines that the playoffs without LeBron or Steph or Big Market X are inherently bereft, but this postseason has just been undercut at every turn by its injuries, and it’s tough for me to take a finals with a Bucks team that really should have lost two rounds ago in it all that seriously. Someone tell me who wins between Jrue and Dario (get well soon!) and I'll be sure to send an Edible Arrangement to their office, that's about all I got for that one.
So failing any incisive commentary about "Our Sixers" or the "NBA Finals," I've turned my attention to solving the scheduling issues that helped result in this season being so generally cruddy. I had a brainstorm the other day that quickly blossomed into a full-fledged NBA Modest Proposal. And here it is, in short: double-headers, without any players playing in both games.
Now, the long version. Obviously, the NBA has a scheduling problem where shorter off-seasons trying to make up time from the pandemic (now further disrupted by these upcoming Olympics) is leading to more compact scheduling, more back-to-backs, tighter travel windows and greater general wear and tear. The home-and-home type series this season were a good start, but why not go a step farther with it and make them straight up MLB-style double-headers? For maybe 12 pairs of games sprinkled throughout the season, you'd schedule them either as a day-night duo like in baseball -- particularly for weekend series -- or just do 6:00 / 9:00 local tips with a half-hour break in between. With the quicker turnarounds, you could have longer layovers in between game days, eliminate back-to-backs, and cut down on overall travel, without needing to lose games outright.
And the key to this idea, as previously mentioned, is that all players on both teams would be limited to playing in just one of the two games. In this system, coaches would have to submit their Game One lineups a half-hour before opening tip, and then that would lock in the available roster for that game -- as well as the remaining available roster for Game Two. League rules would be specially adjusted for these double-headers to expand active rosters from 15 to 18 players, with D-League affiliates getting involved to lend out three or more players (and augmented by free agency as proves necessary) to flesh out a full 18-man pool. Neither coach would know the other's roster for either game ahead of time, so both nine-man teams would mostly have to be kept balanced for flexibility's sake -- or not, if coaches really wanted to get gonzo with it and try to play to certain advantages with uneven half-rosters.
It's only a minor exaggeration to say that I basically see nothing but upside here. Star players get a guaranteed 12 games off a season without having to worry about making up injuries, losing ground in individual award races, or compromising their teams or their reputations by resting -- and no more back-to-backs. Role players and bench scrubs get an equal number of games to show what they can do with increased minutes/opportunity, and maybe make their cases for increased responsibilities in the short- or long-term. Coaches get to tinker with different lineup constructions -- go small! go big! go annoying! -- without having to worry about adhering to usual rotations / sub patterns or offending any big names in the process. GMs get to try out some new blood from the minors pipeline and see if maybe a couple of kids are worth a second look later on. Owners don't have to sacrifice any more home games. Concession stand owners make enough in the between-game breaks to put their kids through college. Everybody wins!
I guess you could say the one major group that suffers here is casual fans, the kind who aren't necessarily excited about the prospect of watching games with 30 minutes of Paul Reed and 0 of Joel Embiid. But chances are, if you're reading this blog entry from a column called If Not Pick Will Convey as Two Second Rounders, you're already pretty goddamn tantalized by this idea -- and you'd be pretty far from alone, I think. The strategy that would go into it would be fucking fascinating, and the wonky results that would come of it could bottle that precious Roy Oswalt Playing Left Field energy in a way that basketball's regular season never quite has before. With the way load management around the league is going, we're not far off from a future where this is basically gonna be the case for all two-night back-to-backs anyway -- at least this new system would acknowledge that trend, and make something fun and interesting out of it.
Brilliant, right? Well probably not, so I asked the much smarter Mike O'Connor for his expert take on why this wouldn't actually work. His principal concerns, offered alongside generous overall encouragement:
1. What happens if someone gets hurt or gets in foul trouble in Game One of the double-header -- does that screw you for Game Two?
2. What about tanking teams? Are we really gonna ask folks to watch an already-wafer-thin roster now sliced in half and spread over two games?
3. Will it change the way teams are built -- as in, requiring more Dwight Howard-type backup options that don't usually help a ton in the playoffs?
4. Would any broadcasting partner actually want to televise these?
Valuable questions all, MOC. We'll take 'em one at a time.
-Shorthanded rosters are obviously a concern when you're starting with a nine-man max -- but not to the point where you shouldn't be able to get through an average game, I don't think. If someone ends up needing to play extra minutes or out of position, well, that's part of the wildcard fun of these doubleheaders. Regardless, in my vision of this system, once rosters are set, they'd be set for both games -- so you couldn't just decide to grab whatever guy from your projected Game Two roster because you end up a little shorthanded in Game One. (In case of true emergencies, perhaps you could flex an extra player from Game One to Game Two or vice versa -- but I think it'd probably be like injury replacement free throws, where the opposing coach gets to pick the player who does it.)
-The tanking discussion is a very fair point to raise as a drawback to this idea. The idea of watching the Thunder team of late last year -- or y'know, any Sixers team of 2013-2016 -- spread out their razor-thin roster over two separate games in one day is indeed a nauseating one. There might not be a way to properly counteract this, but the league could at least schedule these to load up on as many as they can over the first few months of the season, when the tanking teams haven't completely isolated themselves yet and when the contenders haven't begun playoff-maneuvering mode. But if teams are really intent on tanking that badly, they're not likely to be all that much more watchable at full strength -- and, well [taps forehead], your fans can't really get mad at not getting to watch your A squad in a double-header game if you don't have an A squad to begin with.
-Will it change much about overall roster construction? I'm skeptical. We're talking about 10-12 games out of a possible 82, and honestly, if you're not game-planning for your star players to miss that many games in an average 2020s NBA season anyway, you're probably already being fairly derelict in your duty. There aren't many spots on the basketball court where you can get away without having some kind of backup option for your main guys, and while you'd certainly prefer most of those guys playing 8-12 minutes instead of 30-36, I don't know if knowing you'll have to play them the latter amount in ~15% of your overall games really changes your overall team-building a ton. (MOC also suggests that other incentives besides wanting to have the best chance to win both games might go into the thought between the two nine-man rosters; also fair, though I think most would be played straight up and the rest could end up with entertaining results as well.)
-Would the league's broadcasting partners want to show these double-headers? Well, in terms of the national affiliates, probably not many of 'em. I don't know the exact stats on MLB double-header viewership but it's probably fairly safe to assume they're down from what they'd be if they were two games in two nights -- and that's without splitting up rosters for 'em. That said, if leaned on more as a novelty than a fixture -- say, one TNT Thursday and one ABC/ESPN Sunday a month -- I think curiosity about them would be enough to keep ratings from being outright disastrous, particularly in some of the spicier matchups. The local broadcasters might not be thrilled, but if it prevents the NBA from losing more games outright, I'm confident they'd rather have the double-header games than no games at all. (And again -- given the number of high-profile TNT/ESPN matchups we had this year that ended up being some equivalent of the Tim Hardaway Jr.-led Mavs vs. the Kyle Kuzma-led Lakers due to all the injuries and load management, this wouldn't be all that different from what we've been getting anyway.)
That's the thing, really -- if the primary concern of MOC or anyone else about this idea is that it'll lead to some really junky basketball, all I can say is: Of course it will lead to some really junky basketball. But if you were watching the NBA this year, you might've noticed that we have a pretty considerable amount of really junky basketball to go around already. What the doubleheader idea would (maybe, hopefully, eventually) achieve is to essentially absorb all that junkiness, pulling it away from the rest of the regular-season schedule in the process.
MOC also had a very solid counter-idea to instead put a limit on the number of games a player can play in over the course of an 82-game season, to enforce a similar amount of rest and take the onus off the players/coaches in the same way as the double-header concept. But the thing that a player-game limit doesn't accomplish that this idea does is allowing for the foreknowledge of which games are gonna up weird. If Joel Embiid has to sit at least 12 games a season, then that means he could conceivably sit in any game at a moment's notice -- something that would put fans and league affiliates alike in a state of perpetual anxiety. But if we know for a fact that Embiid is going to sit in 12 games across 12 specific game days -- and that if he's healthy, we'll still get to watch him on each of those days anyway -- then that doesn't seem so bad. In the meantime, across those other 58 games (including most of the Sixers' nationally broadcast matchups), hopefully Jo will be well-rested enough to not have to sit more than once or twice for any reason other than total injury incapacitation.
And those 24 games? Well, they'll largely be Real Fans Only, sure, but what's so wrong with that? Not a lot of casuals are turning in for all 82 these days anyway, and the rest of us could use a little variety, a little excitement, a little bit of a break from the slog that the regular season can be at its calendar's bendiest bends. Charge a 2-for-1 discount for the games, encourage fans to make a whole day/night of it at the arena, and use it as an opportunity for real culture-building. The reason why Process Trusters still talk glowingly about those 2013-'16 seasons despite winning fewer games combined across three years than we won in a shortened season this year is because we were able to find meaning, find connection, find family through those teams, when expectations were exponentially lower and the players were passing through like students abroad and the actual games just felt like they were being played for the hell of it. For every team to get a guaranteed dozen game nights of that a season, why, it may as well be the 12 Days of Christmas for all the warm and fuzzies it'll engender.
Or not. It's a thought, anyway. To me, it's more interesting to think about than anything related to this miserable, injury-compromised, still technically ongoing basketball season.