The Orlando NBA bubble, a quarantine zone created by the NBA to safeguard its players from COVID-19, has been everything the NBA could have wanted and more. There are many reasons why the bubble has been great, but I want to focus on the importance of the regular season and how the bubble has made fans more exhilarated for regular season games. The Orlando bubble has made every single regular season game incredibly exciting and important, with many games having a playoff-like intensity. These have been the most exciting regular seasons games in a very long time. Here’s my pitch: permanently replicate this intensity and fan interest that has been present in the Orlando bubble without cutting regular season games.

Why am I making this proposal? People complain that the NBA regular season means almost nothing, especially compared to the NFL or to European soccer, which leads to decreased fan interest and ratings. The evidence for this is the nosediving of NBA ratings, even compared to other TV industries during the current cord cutting “revolution.”

My idea is playing between 65 and 72 regular season games, and then the remainder of the season would be played separately in two “pods.” The pods don’t need to be like Orlando with everyone living on the same complex, but more similar to the NBA being broken into two new conferences. Playing 72 games allows for three games against all other teams within each conference, plus two games against teams in the opposite conference. The pods would be based on a team's status regarding the NBA playoffs — eliminated or not eliminated.

Pod 1: Teams that have not yet been eliminated.

Pod 2: Teams that have already been eliminated. Lottery odds will be awarded based on their record before entering the pod.

Teams will only play teams within their pod.

Pod 1: If the ninth seed is within two games of the eighth seed, a play-in series would occur with the same rules as the Orlando bubble play-in series. For teams that are in this pod but then are eliminated from the playoffs, they would be put in their own NBA draft lottery, and the winner of that lottery would be awarded the same draft odds as if they had the third worst record in the NBA. This would guarantee a top-five pick while still allowing them a chance at any pick within the top-five. The remaining teams would receive draft odds in reverse order by their standings. Draft lottery odds would remain normal with Pod 2 receiving all the highest slots (except for the third pick odds reserved for the Pod 1 lottery winner), then Pod 1 would receive the rest of the slots. This would mean that no Pod 1 team could jump a Pod 2 team in lottery odds, except for the winner of the Pod 1 lottery. The playoffs would proceed in the same fashion as we are used to.

Pod 2: This pod would be composed of only teams eliminated from the playoffs. There are many different ways to handle this second pod. The NBA could experiment with rule changes or other modifications. I believe that the most interesting thing that the NBA could do would be to make a second set of playoffs, with the winner moving down the standings by one lottery position. For example, the 22nd best record would instead have the odds of the 23rd best record, the team with the 23rd best record would move to the 22nd best record’s lottery odds. If the winner is already a bottom four seed (the fifth seed would now be the sixth seed to accommodate for the Pod 1 reserved spot) they receive a 0.026 increase in lottery odds, the equivalent of gaining 0.002 from the other 13 teams in the lottery. Upon entering Pod 2, all the teams would have their records reset for the remaining games of the regular season, and would play the remaining games as seeding games for the playoffs. They would have their own playoffs seeded first through however many teams are in the tournament. If there is an uneven number of teams, then the lowest two seeded teams would have a play-in series similar to the one the eighth and ninth seeds are able to have in pod one. This playoff could run concurrently, before, or after the NBA playoffs. This would solve the issue of tanking teams playing boring, losing basketball, and it would incentivize not buying out veteran players, while also increasing revenue for the league. To incentivize the players to play, cash rewards can be given out, and it also would be a good way for young players to get some semblance of playoff experience.

There are many pros to the pods, and I’ve listed out some of them here.

  • They eliminate wasted games by championship contenders against tanking teams at the end of the regular season, which are usually boring and meaningless games.
  • They incentivize putting out an alright team that still wins games, because if you can hold onto your chance of a playoff spot just a little longer, you might be rewarded with a top five pick instead of the eighth or ninth pick. 
  • They allow mediocre franchises, or teams that had disappointing seasons, a shot at a top prospect that could propel their team to greater heights. This will help avoid teams bottoming out, like the Philadelphia 76ers did during the famous “Process” years.
  • The Orlando bubble is the most exciting regular season basketball most of us have seen in years, and this would keep those intense games that the fans love. 
  • Fans would not be cheering for losses as much, as they would be hoping their team sneaks into the first pod to either make the playoffs or be guaranteed a top five pick.
  • They allow for the more Cinderella story teams and players to have runs, similar to March Madness, while still having all 82 games of the NBA regular season. For example, TJ Warren’s current crazy hot streak, the Phoenix Suns’ hot streak and Portland’s hot streak have all been receiving significant attention.
  • Though there is yet to be a play-in series, it is guaranteed we will see one very soon. I imagine it will be incredibly exciting, and incentivizing more play-ins would create more excitement.
  • More basketball games will be played because of the second pod’s mini-playoff bracket.
  • There will be higher quality basketball games as teams are fighting for playoff seeds and tiebreakers. For example, teams trying to run up the score during a blowout with a close seeded team to help with seeding if they finish with the same record. The opposition is disincentivized to allow this for the exact same reason, either leading to a serious game played by bench players or more minutes by the superstars in what would usually be a meaningless game.
  • Finally: more basketball games = more money on TV deals, from sponsors, from fans attending the games, etc. = more revenue for the league.