Players' regular-season yawns could force NBA to wake up

The Baltimore Sun

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- Back when NBA salaries, at least at the low end, still maintained a link with the common man, Miami Heat forward Grant Long was asked whether he deemed it worthwhile to bend his 6-foot-9 frame for a stray dollar bill on a sidewalk.

Long, who never met currency he couldn't appreciate and was out selling medical supplies the day his NBA career ended, was incredulous.

That dollar, he said, meant lunch. For a man who once housed his family over an entire season at a Fairfield Inn along Florida's Palmetto Expressway, even the smallest of denominations had value.

Which brings us to the NBA regular season, especially this one, which, at least to some, barely is worth anything close to heavy lifting.

A week back, after a victory in Oklahoma City, Detroit Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace was asked about games that matter.

"Once the playoffs get here, I think that's what I'm looking forward to and what we're all looking forward to," he told The Detroit News.

"In my opinion, the regular season is boring until you get those good matchups with Miami, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio and those good teams.

"You definitely look forward to that. But these others? It's just going to the office."

OK, then.

Boring. Just going to the office.

And you're paying to watch this stuff?

Amid increasing clamor that last season's Heat was a counterfeit champion, with its only-when-necessary approach, the NBA has a concern on its hands:

Some players, especially those on the top teams, don't seem to care much about these dog days of the season.

That, by itself, is nothing new. What has changed is the verbalization.

It no longer is taboo to say what so many so long have thought.

In that respect, give Wallace credit. His candor, although coarse at times, is refreshing.

It's also what results when a league allows 16 of 30 teams into the playoffs and guarantees a postseason berth to the six division winners, no matter how wretched the win-loss record (see Eastern Conference, Atlantic Division).

The problem is Heat-itis has grown contagious. And that has left more than Pat Riley to suffer the torment.

In Detroit, coach Flip Saunders finds himself fighting the fight with his Pistons.

"I've heard enough about the playoffs. 'Let's wait for the playoffs' - that doesn't cut it with me," Saunders said in the wake of Wallace's comment.

"I think every team thinks they can just do that, but it's a dangerous game to play. Because all of a sudden, you flip it on and it might not quite be there."

Not all consider the regular season an exercise in tedium.

Instead, there are the Suns, who embrace their image as regular-season wonders, even if it hasn't yet produced the ultimate playoff payoff.

"This team doesn't take any nights off," said coach Mike D'Antoni, whose team has a 15-1 record against teams with losing records.

Several weeks ago we pushed for a reduction to a 60-game schedule as a means to address the recent, seemingly unprecedented, profusion of injuries to top-tier talent. The commissioner's office has yet to respond.

This time, perhaps it's time to address the ease of playoff qualification, or the mere loss of a single home game for the lower seed in first-round postseason series.

OK, how about a reduction to 12 playoff teams, with coveted first-round byes to the top two seeds in each conference?

Failing that, maintain the 4-3 home-road split in the No. 4-vs.-No. 5 opening-round series in each conference, but make it a 5-2 split in the No. 2-vs.-No. 7 series as well as the No. 3-vs.-No. 6 opening-round bracket.

And then? A 6-1 split in the No. 1-vs.-No. 8 bracket. Three home games for the top seed, a single home playoff date for the No. 8 seed, and then three more potential home games for a team that actually committed itself to the regular season.

Then tell us how "boring" the first 82 would be, how it would feel like "just going to the office."

Ira Winderman writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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