During last year’s NBA off-season, the Kevin Durant free-agent sweepstakes and Team USA’s Olympic gold medal created plenty of buzz. But this year’s developments—with trades, signings and all the hype around Los Angeles Lakers draft pick Lonzo Ball—have raised the decibel level even higher.
The start of play should bring still more excitement. Several teams are preparing for games in new arenas or finalizing plans for new homes in the seasons to come. And the league continues its growth overseas, with international games planned in China, Mexico and London during the preseason and regular season ahead. Meanwhile, the 2016–2017 season will see a scheduling shift aimed at limiting the number of back-to-back games that players have to endure—a change that required moving up the start of the season by a full week.
NBA teams that are serious about competing for a championship—and matching the standard the Golden State Warriors have forged—knew they had to step up. In many cases they did. Oklahoma City grabbed Paul George from Indianapolis and Carmelo Anthony from New York, Chris Paul shifted from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Houston Rockets, and Jimmy Butler went from Chicago to Minnesota. But nothing topped the summer headlines more than Kyrie Irving’s desire to be dealt from the Cleveland Cavaliers and the eventual blockbuster swap with the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas.
Suddenly the games featuring established stars in new homes take on a different light. The NBA’s television broadcast partners (TNT, ESPN, ABC and NBA TV) project national telecasts on the dates that involve the first return of George to Indy (December 13, ESPN), Butler to Chicago (February 9, ESPN) and the returns of Irving and Thomas to their former cities (October 17 on TNT in Boston and January 3 on ESPN in Cleveland).
For years, players have been raising concerns about the toll of the league’s 82-game season and the number of back-to-back games. Devin Booker, one of the NBA’s rising stars as a point guard in his third season with the Phoenix Suns, has admitted that back-to-back games hurt the level of his play by the end of last season. When asked about the toll after the Suns’ April 2 home loss against the Rockets, Booker said, “It’s a lot.” The Rockets, having already clinched a playoff berth, didn’t play MVP-caliber guard James Harden—and still won handily.
Early in the season with fresher legs, Booker set the NBA record for the youngest player —he was 20—to score at least 39 points in back-to-back games. Later, he notched one of the NBA’s biggest individual performances of the year by scoring 70 against Boston, the highest game total since Kobe Bryant’s 81-point outburst in 2006.
The fact that Harden rested in that game against the Suns raises a well-publicized issue around the NBA. Some teams, most notably the San Antonio Spurs, paced themselves by resting star players rather than asking them to make certain road trips with the team.
In the hope that star players wouldn’t have to sit out, the NBA’s schedule for 2017–2018 was adjusted to allow teams to rest more in the regular season. The new schedule has reduced the number of back-to-backs to an average of 14.4 per team compared to an average of 16.3 last season. Most significant was the elimination of the “four-in-fives,” or four games in five days. By starting the regular season one week earlier on October 17, the league gave itself more room on the calendar. That shift has resulted in no four-in-fives for the first time in league history.
Finding the MECCA
Meanwhile, some of the games on the schedule will see teams playing in new—or, in one case, former—surroundings. The October 26 game in Milwaukee between the Celtics and the Bucks, to celebrate the 50th year of the Bucks’ franchise, shifts from the downtown BMO Harris Bradley Center to the Bucks’ original home at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Panther Arena, formerly known as MECCA Arena. The site may be familiar to longtime fans but perhaps not to players, many of whom were born after 1988, the last year the Bucks played at the arena.
All of this takes place while the Bucks play their final season at Bradley before moving to a new $524 million arena, now under construction at a site adjacent to the current venue. Over the summer the Bucks moved into their $31 million downtown practice facility, known as the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center. The Bucks will anchor a district known as Live Block, a planned mix of entertainment, restaurant and retail options. “We’re very focused, not just on the arena, but on trying to make downtown Milwaukee a place where people want to live, work and play,” said Bucks President Peter Feigin. “We think that anchoring the arena is a great place to start, but there’s so much potential in the area here.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo—aka the “Greek Freak”—and NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon lifted the Bucks back into the playoffs last season. They had help from 6-foot-11 center Greg Monroe, who went to Milwaukee as a free agent and was rewarded with a trip to the postseason for the first time in his seven-year career. He chose to exercise his $17.9 million option to remain with the Bucks for the 2017–2018 season.
“We have a couple of great young players here,” Monroe said. “With all the new stuff—the new arena, the new (practice) facility being downtown—I think that with these guys growing, there’s excitement here.”
Motoring in Detroit
The Bucks aren’t the only team with moving plans. The defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors are set to play two and possibly three more seasons at Oracle Arena in Oakland before their move across the San Francisco Bay to the new waterfront Chase Center.
This season, the Detroit Pistons will become the latest NBA team to have a new home when they begin play at Little Caesars Arena. The Pistons, following the recent trend of franchises returning to the city’s inner core, have closed out their tenure at the suburban Palace of Auburn Hills and will share the new $863 million arena with the NHL’s Red Wings. The Pistons had played home games at The Palace since 1988.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last summer that he’s pleased with the movement to more urban areas. “I think we’re seeing it makes these arenas more accessible,” Silver said. “They’re accessible through public transportation and they become part and parcel with the energy and the heart of these cities.”
The league continues to look for opportunities overseas as well. The NBA will hold regular season games in Mexico City and London. Marking the 25-year anniversary of the NBA’s first game played in Mexico, the NBA for the first time will have four games there in the same calendar year in 2017. In January, the Phoenix Suns hosted the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs. This season, the Brooklyn Nets will be the designated home team in two December games, one each against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat. The NBA partners with Zignia Live, the operator of Arena Ciudad de Mexico, to organize the games.
“We’re very excited to be back in Mexico City again in December,” said Kelly Flatow, the NBA senior vice-president of events and content. “We have an incredibly passionate fan base there. We have a great partner with Zignia in the marketplace, a terrific number of marketing partners and media partners as well.”
Flatow said the NBA talks to all of the teams in the league about the possibility of games abroad, and the Nets demonstrated the most interest in Mexico. Several other teams have stepped up as well. This season’s game in London, to be staged January 11 at O2 Arena, features the Philadelphia 76ers against the Boston Celtics. In August, NBA players from several teams played an exhibition game in Johannesburg, South Africa. And the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves were scheduled to play two October preseason games in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Shanghai.
In previous years the league marketed such contests collectively as Global Games, but this year it chose to individualize each international setting—for instance, NBA Mexico City Games 2017 and NBA London Game 2018. “We think that resonates even better with our fans, our partners and the local communities,” said Flatow, who traveled over the summer to Johannesburg for NBA Africa Game 2017.
This year’s NBA exhibition game in Johannesburg between Team World and Team Africa followed an initial contest there in 2015, and the NBA has a track record that goes back even further on the African continent. The league conducted its 15th NBA Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg and has had an office there since 2010. Since its first exhibition game in Johannesburg two years ago, the NBA expanded the number of its corporate partners for several ancillary events.
Marriott International is one of the NBA’s marketing partners for the international games as the hotelier seizes an opportunity to provide a memorable experience for its loyalty program members. In Johannesburg, elite members enjoyed a meet-and-greet with Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker. The exhibition game also featured NBA players such as Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ star rookie who played volleyball while growing up in Cameroon before he took up basketball at the age of 16 and moved to the United States.
There was another twist to the preseason games in China. The contests between the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves marked the first time NBA teams sported Nike-sponsored apparel. “All of that merchandise is available on league-dedicated international e-commerce sites,” Flatow said.
As the league plots its future growth, fans appear to be responding. Last season marked the third consecutive regular-season attendance record for the league with 21,997,412 million people on hand. That included an average of 17,884 per game, a new record as well. With overseas interest growing, high-profile players in new markets and new, bigger arenas on the way, the NBA would appear to be in good shape to continue its upward trend.