At the risk of hearing: “Who watches the Toronto Raptors versus the Chicago Bulls, anyway?”, how do you sell without a product?
Midway through the second quarter, Nick Nurse had played everyone at his disposal. Everybody. Malcolm Miller, Chris Boucher, it didn’t matter. On the second night of a back-to-back and Fred VanVleet adding himself to the list of those unavailable, the Raptors head coach realized that this was going to be a war of attrition.
The Bulls were coming off an overtime loss to the Miami Heat the previous night, too, so it should come as no surprise that after Zach LaVine erupted for 20 points in the first half, he failed to add a single point to his tally in the second. Credit Toronto’s defence and Marc Gasol’s excellent rim protection, but there’s no way fatigue didn’t play its part.
Toronto and Chicago combined to shoot 19-for-75 (25.3%) from beyond the arc, and under 85 points per-100 possessions in the half-court. The kicker? It was beyond evident that these two teams that love to run just didn’t have the legs to do it. Chicago and Toronto rank eighth (127.3) and ninth (126.2), respectively, in points per-100 transition possessions but the former managed 85.7 and the latter 80 on this night. The only reward for anyone who watched their chalkboard-scraping affair was a final buzzer.
Ratings have become a major storyline this season, with viewership numbers down across ESPN, TNT and 13 percent across regional networks. The list of reasons are many, but point the finger and you’ll quickly realize the league has extremely fixable problems.
When Kawhi Leonard skipped a nationally televised game against reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks only to play the very next night against the Portland Trail Blazers, the term load management had effectively run its course. Fans rightfully want to see the best players play, and while load management certainly isn’t just resting a player, the optics of it made for an unwanted interpretation publicly.
The move now is “knee maintenance” in the case of Leonard, as he sat the Clippers’ second night of a back-to-back against the Indiana Pacers. Of the nine games played Monday, six teams were playing for the second time in as many nights.
Science has spoken on the negative effects of a lack of sleep and, even more specifically to the NBA, playing on consecutive nights. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained, not even money with the way viewership results have trended the last few years.
Proposed league changes like the in-season tournament and re-seeding during the playoffs are all encouraging in that the league is looking to address its numbers problem, but doesn’t necessarily address the actual gripes with the regular season. In an effort to raise the ceiling, executives involved aren’t taking into consideration how much more they can raise the floor. The NBA has arrived at a point where it has achieved the trifecta: there’s never been more star power, never more marketing avenues, and never more global appeal.
The prevailing thought is that 66 games is the number required to eliminate back-to-backs, but perhaps there’s a middle ground that eliminates them by extending the season but doesn’t bring the number quite that low. For the record, if it were up to me, the schedule would be down to 58 games with each team playing against each other twice, but — like the 66-game theory — the owners would have a hard time standing for that and the players themselves would likely be unwilling to take such a significant decrease in pay as well.
At least begin the transition by reducing the games enough where you’re only reserving back-to-backs for situations like travelling to the Knicks and Nets, or both L.A. teams, or the Bucks and Bulls. Making Toronto go from Philadelphia to Chicago and the Bulls from Miami back home should be primitive thinking by now. Making a matchup that isn’t highly anticipated all the more unwatchable with both teams on the second night of a back-to-back is flat out silly.
Toronto arguably pulled off the win because it simply knows how to, while Chicago is in another season of learning the ropes. In the final six minutes, with the finish line in sight, the Raptors dug deep on the defensive end and found a hero in Norman Powell on offence. That shouldn’t be all the game comes down to.
The 2021-22 season will mark the 75th anniversary of the National Basketball Association, and one can only hope that as it ushers in a new era with changes, the quality of its existing product doesn’t remain watered down for reasons that should be avoidable.
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