However, the truth is that within the same geography is where sports’ greatest passions stir. Though the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings had a war of words earlier this decade, it was such a one-sided affair that it’s rarely brought up as one of the NBA’s most known rivalries. Not since the New York Knicks and Miami Heat traded fists and baskets have there been those kinds of regular season games that were hyped because of pure, unabated hatred within the division. Knicks-Heat (or Knicks against everybody in the 1990s) didn’t need to be aesthetically pleasing or be full of offensive superstars with great smiles to attract a crowd because mean mugging and hard fouls made the country ask “what else can these guys do to each other?”
The rule changes that essentially handcuffed defenses took a bit of the necessary surliness out of natural rivalries, but it does not mean that they can’t be reborn. If there’s one area that can be tweaked to bring back these kinds of games, it’s in team schedules themselves. To reemphasize division rivalries, I believe that the 82-game schedule can be modified in a similar vein of their major league peers.
They could take the slightly unbalanced schedule that baseball and the NHL use which features more games within the division, yet will retain the logistics of having visits from every team within the league. They could also rotate two interdivisional games between the other ten teams that would guarantee an equal amount of visits to every city over a five-year period in the way the NFL does in its schedule.
Sounds confusing? Let it be explained by using the Knicks’ schedule (trying to get to some games this season, so sue me for using the local team):
Current NBA Schedule: (H=home, A=away)
4 games apiece versus teams within the Atlantic Division (2H/2A) = 16 games
- Boston, New Jersey, Toronto and Philadelphia all split home and away dates evenly.
- 3 games a apiece against two teams in the Central Division (one series of 2H/1A, one series of 1H/2A) = 6
- Cleveland visits New York once while the Knicks play there twice this year. Milwaukee comes to New York twice while the Knicks play there once.
- 4 games apiece against three teams in the Central Division (2H/2A) = 12
- Chicago, Detroit and Indiana have even splits of home and away games this season
- 3 games apiece against two teams in the Southeast Division (one series of 2H/1A, one series of 1H/2A) = 6
- Orlando visits New York once while the Knicks play there twice this year. Miami comes to New York twice while the Knicks play there once.
- 4 games apiece against three teams in the Southeast Division (2H/2A) = 12
- Charlotte, Washington and Atlanta have even splits of home and away games this season.
82 total regular season games (41 home, 41 away)
- This would remain unchanged.
Of course, there are logistical reasons for why games are scheduled in the current format that us fans and the media aren’t exactly privy to or don’t keep up with. For example, every season a few teams will go on lengthy road trips for annual events such as conference and national tournaments in college sports or local events like the famous San Antonio Stock and Rodeo Show that keeps the Spurs away from home for about two weeks in February. There is also the fact that ten cities house both NHL and NBA teams in the same arena, making scheduling an intricate dance during the offseason for both leagues. Finally, relocation and expansion have spread the pool of games a bit thin; the NBA has certainly done a great job in trying to retain the pre-Charlotte/New Orleans/Memphis/Oklahoma City schedule with respect to travel itineraries.
Yet, it’s unlikely that there will be a change in the amount of teams in the league any time soon. Despite economic uncertainties and mismanagement of some franchises, this would be the perfect time to explore changing the schedule to give a bit more meaning – literal and emotional – to crowning division champions with the added value of a properly calibrated unbalanced schedule.