Vardon: Lakers, Heat have proven NBA regular season means little. Here’s one way to fix that

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BOSTON — On one side is the Miami Heat, who, to a man, sound like they respect the NBA regular season to the point where they almost revere it.

“There was a beauty in the struggle,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday.

“The regular season is definitely important to build your foundation,” Kyle Lowry added.

“The adversity that we’ve been through the whole season, the ups and downs, the games we should have won but didn’t win, going to the locker room and trying to figure it out, rewrite whatever we did wrong, and going through that, put us in this position,” Bam Adebayo said Wednesday night.

The position the Heat find themselves in is up 1-0 in the Eastern Conference finals over the rival Boston Celtics despite entering the tournament as the eighth seed.

To be eighth is to be, well, meh, for most, if not all, of the season, depending on the context of the individual team we’re talking about.

The Heat were coming off a campaign in which they’d secured the No. 1 seed in the East and were one shot from making the NBA Finals. They’d lost just one player off that team, and yet, the Heat won 44 games, saw their 3-point shooting percentage plummet year over year, witnessed a slippage in defense (that recovered over the final two months) and played in 54 close games (identified by the score being within five points over the last five minutes) — winning more of them than anyone else in the league (32) but also dropping 22 of these games.

“There was a beauty in the adversity, a beauty in the grind of just trying to, like, figure this damn thing out,” Spoelstra said. “And it was a blessing to be able to go through all of that. I have not been part of a regular season like that. And I think we all grew and got better from it to not let it collapse our spirit but really just to harden us and steel us and bring us closer together and develop that kind of grit and perseverance that’s needed in the postseason.

“I really don’t like that narrative, that it only matters in the playoffs,” Spoelstra added. “I think we’re a perfect example of the opposite of that.”

Yes, there is another narrative, another side to this.

Whereas the Heat are basically grateful to have faced and endured the trappings an 82-game schedule can present, they nevertheless are a part of an NBA in which:

  • A seventh (Lakers) AND eighth seed (Heat) reached the conference finals in the same spring for the first time in NBA history.
  • Only 22 of the top 50 scorers played at least 70 games, which means 28 of the best players in the league missed at least 15 percent of the games.
  • Teams routinely ignored league rules about resting players in national TV games, and were not penalized for it.
  • The commissioner’s office and the players’ union agreed to a new rule requiring players to appear in at least 65 games to even be considered for season-ending awards, like MVP, in an obvious nod to the growing epidemic caused by “load management,” where players are sitting out of games for precautionary reasons.
  • The commissioner (he has a name, sorry; it’s Adam Silver) created a mini-tournament at the end of the regular season to get teams to stop tanking, called the “Play-In,” and has another coming this December to simply get them (and fans) to care more.

If the Heat say the regular season is vitally important, the rest of the league, through its words and actions, says otherwise and is working on some things to change that.

In addition to the items mentioned above, my friend at ESPN, Zach Lowe reported, that more rules to regulate the “load management” phenomenon could be coming as soon as next season.

As far as I can tell, among the national NBA media community, I may be the biggest whiner/complainer when it comes to load management and the general degradation of the regular season.

Two specific incidents broke me once and for all — both in January.

The first: Witnessing in person the LA Clippers get blown out in the first half of a road game at Denver, and pulling Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at halftime because there was another game the next night, only for both players to be held out of that second game anyway.

The other: During a home back-to-back for the Cavaliers, on consecutive nights, the Warriors held out Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, followed by the Milwaukee Bucks sitting Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

Leaving to the side the individual circumstances surrounding those teams and players for a moment (schedules, injury history, etc.), from a fan’s perspective, from a national TV broadcast perspective and from a sanctity of the regular season perspective, it had become beyond clear the league and its teams simply did not place much importance or value on the regular season.

If five future Hall of Famers (say what you will about Middleton, but he’s a champion, a multi-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist) could be held out of games in the same city on consecutive nights; if the Clippers (or the players’ personal managers) couldn’t bring themselves to play Leonard or George for more than one half over a span of two nights — in the middle of a six-game losing streak, no less! — how could we reasonably conclude that the regular season matters all that much?

As I write this, I am watching on my laptop first round coverage of the PGA Championship, which has me thinking about what’s going on in the world of golf.

In the last year, we’ve seen a number of players leave the PGA Tour for something called LIV — basically a rogue tour the PGA defectors joined because the money was simply too much to pass up.

To stop the bleeding, the PGA Tour came up with a system for increasing the prize money at more tournaments. This is the same Tour that had already created the FedEx Cup playoffs to keep the attention of the sport’s best players (and fans) outside of the four major tournaments with a points system and year-end event in which last year’s winner — Rory McIlroy — pocketed $18 million out of a gargantuan $75 million purse.

I think the NBA should do something like this. If we want more players (which, in turn, would bring their team front offices along for the ride) to care about the regular season, we should make it worth their while.

This year, the league will distribute about $27 million to teams that make the playoffs and advance through the season, according to data published by the league.

About $5 million of that is awarded based on where a team finished in the regular season (for instance, the Bucks will get $777,777 for winning the most regular-season games, and another $680,680 will go to them for finishing first in the East.)

The rest of the money, nearly $22 million, will be doled out based on playoff results (the teams split the money among 15 players on guaranteed contracts). The 16 teams to reach the first round will all get $402,493; the eight teams to reach the second round, another $478,913; the four to make the conference finals, $791,402. The finals winner gets $4,776,070, and the loser receives $3,164,739.

My idea: Take that $22 million in playoff money and put it all into the regular season. Make it so all of it goes to either the top two teams in each conference (an extra $430,000 per player, on average) or top three (nearly $300,000 per player, on average). My math isn’t exactly right, because the No. 1 overall seed in the regular season would get more than the others.

I wish I could bump the purses even higher here, so the average NBA player was trying to win more than a million extra dollars, but doing so would cause a massive re-bargaining of the league’s contract with players on revenue sharing.

Still, even an extra half million per season is significant in a league in which the average player’s salary is $9.6 million. For the players making less than that, the prize money would be even more important.

I think players play the regular season so they can earn their money and play the playoffs for glory. I’d find another $8 million to restore the prize money for the finals. But otherwise, the NBA regular season would be a long drive for dough; the playoffs, a short (but grueling and intense) putt for show.

The second change I would make to the regular season: If a player misses one game, he must miss the next one too. Injuries are of course a part of the sport. If a player isn’t healthy enough to play on a Tuesday, then it’s probably safer for him anyway to sit out on Thursday too — just to make sure he gets the proper rest. It would otherwise make for a costlier proposition to “load manage,” especially with so much extra cash on the line for him and his teammates.

My plan is of course far from perfect and in fact could be considered entirely insensitive to the modern challenges of playing in the NBA. It’s overly punitive for teams legitimately struck by injury, for teams with older, more-tested veterans, and does nothing to account for the mental-health challenges that face all of us today.

But if the league is trying to find ways to make the regular season mean something, well, I wanted to do my part.

My ideas would not be so good for a team like the Heat, by the way.

The 2022-23 Miami team only had three rotation players — Adebayo (75 games), Max Strus (80 games) and Caleb Martin (71 games) — reach 70 games. The Heat’s best player, Jimmy Butler, appeared in 64 games in this his 12th season. Kyle Lowry, 37, played in 55.

Miami’s players dealt with legitimate health and personal challenges all season. This is not meant to suggest otherwise. But an older team like the Heat, which has reached the conference finals in three of four seasons, certainly benefits from having more to play for come playoff time, than if the regular season mattered to all 30 teams as much as the Heat say it matters to them.

The same argument could be made for the other surprise playoff team, the Lakers. Their top player, LeBron James, is 38 and in his 20th season. His co-star, Anthony Davis, is 30. Both are champions (LeBron, four times over), and neither even made it to 60 regular-season games (significant injury, of course, played a real role in this for both men).

The Lakers at large, well, they clowned around for four months with a roster that was never going to make the playoffs. General manager Rob Pelinka traded away half the players at the February deadline, crafting a deep, talented team with pieces that fit better around James on the fly. Overnight, he had on his hands a team capable of making it at least this far, if not all the way to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Neither the Heat nor the Lakers was able to coast into the playoffs. In the Lakers’ case, they had to fight just to make the Play-In. In the Heat’s, they had to scrap to advance past it.

But over the course of a six-month, 82-game slog, neither team looked anything like it does now in its respective playoff runs.

The Heat credit the ugliness they endured for how pretty they look now.

The regular season at large could use a little lip gloss.

(Photo of Dennis Schröder and Bam Adebayo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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