What happens if you hold an irrelevant basketball tournament featuring the best players in the world? Apparently, the NBA yearns to find out.
The NBA is entertaining some of the most radical changes since the advent of the 3-point line in 1979. It’s prepared to alter its calendar in the name of entertainment, television ratings, and a better regular-season product that provides more than playoff prologue. ESPN reported this past week that the league is considering reducing the regular season to 78 games to make way for an in-season, European soccer-style tournament with group play followed by an eight-team knockout phase.
The NBA would also hold two four-team postseason play-in tournaments for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, and it would re-seed the final four teams left in the playoffs, eliminating the Eastern and Western Conference finals. So, for example, the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers could meet in the NBA Finals.
There are some novel ideas being pushed by the league and forward-thinking commissioner Adam Silver. The play-in tournament seems like a slam dunk, a way to make the regular season relevant longer for more teams and combat tanking. Abandoning geography to get the two best teams in the NBA Finals is welcome. But the in-season tournament, a pet project of Silver’s, is an airball of an idea. It’s the NBA version of New Coke, a popular product repackaged and reformulated in folly.
The gratuitous tournament would purportedly be held this time of year, extending from post-Thanksgiving to mid-December. If college basketball has March Madness, the NBA will have December Disinterest. There’s no reason for fans, teams, or players to care about regular-season games rebranded as a spurious tournament with no real advantage for winning and no real stakes. You lose in the tournament and . . . play the rest of your regular season as scheduled. Yawn. For a tournament to mean something it has to mean something.
That’s why this notion is dead on arrival. It’s an idea that conflicts with the fundamental ethos of North American sports fandom. In our sports, the only season that counts is the postseason. We are resolute in believing that the best way to crown a champion is to override and rewrite the regular-season results with winner-take-all games and best-of-seven series. We believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of postseason happiness.
The 2015-16 73-win Golden State Warriors and the 2007 16-0 Patriots are both viewed as fruitless teams because while they dominated their respective leagues in historic fashion they didn’t prevail in the playoffs. I’ve argued vociferously for the merits of both teams, to no avail. Playoffs to crown a champion after a months-long regular season are a quintessentially American sports ideal.
The NBA is modeling this in-season tournament idea after the domestic cup competitions that exist in the top soccer leagues in Europe, such as the English Premier League and La Liga in Spain. Those leagues don’t hold playoffs. The champion is the regular-season winner. Whoever finishes top of the table, as they say, is the winner. The sample size of the season has spoken.
The domestic league cup tournaments serve as another chance for teams to claim a trophy and a success outside of winning the league. They have meaning and tradition behind them for fans, for clubs, for players, and for coaches, who can see winning such competitions save their jobs.
Then there are competitions such as the FA Cup in England, an inter-division knockout tournament that allows the little guys in the lower divisions to grab their sling shots and compete with Premier League Goliaths. Think of it like the old all-divisions Indiana state basketball tournament.
The NBA equivalent of this would be to have a tournament that included G-League teams facing off with NBA teams, which would never happen.
The league hopes to introduce its tourney, along with the other proposed format tweaks in time for the NBA’s 75th anniversary season in 2021-22.
The league cup tournament concept is a worthy one, just not on this side of the pond. Trying to introduce this tournament is like trying to introduce another European soccer concept to North American sports — relegation. The American public won’t stand for it or understand it. While we’re at it why don’t we introduce coalition governments and prime ministers?
The other issue is that the tournament would do nothing to solve the NBA’s most pressing regular-season problem, the prevalence of “load management.” It’s a trend seeing star players healthy enough to play in regular-season games sit them out to preserve their bodies for the only season that matters — the postseason.
It’s hard to imagine that contenders with players with significant mileage on their NBA odometers (such as Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers) or with fragile bodies (such as Joel Embiid of the 76ers) are going to risk those players to advance out of the group stage, which will also count toward a team’s regular-season record, or in the knockout stage of a tournament with nebulous value. Their eyes will still be fixed on the NBA Finals.
Top European soccer clubs have to juggle their lineups and prioritize which competitions mean the most to them, sitting and resting star players. Teams that play in the Champions League, which crowns a continental club champion, have to balance advancing to the 16-team knockout stage of that prestigious tournament against lesser domestic cup competitions.
Some teams may see advancing to the eight-team knockout round and playing additional games as a detriment, leading to a new kind of tanking.
The best way to introduce the tournament idea is with the play-in games for the final two playoff spots. Under this proposal, the seventh- and eighth-seeded teams following the regular season would face off in each conference, as would the ninth- and 10th-seeded teams. The winner of the game between the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds would earn the seventh seed. The loser would play the winner of the game between the ninth- and 10-seeded teams for the final spot.
The NBA could take it a step further and have the remaining 10 teams play a tournament with the winner earning the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. That would further temper tanking.
The NBA regular season is enjoyable as is. There’s enough Giannis Antetokounmpo freakishness, LeBron James greatness, James Harden craftiness, and Luka Doncic magic to keep me entertained on a nightly basis. The quality of play is high. This feels like more of a perception problem than an actual problem, especially since the league’s ratings are down this season.
One complaint with the NBA would be that every remotely physical foul seemingly has to be reviewed for qualification as a flagrant foul.
The in-season tournament idea is a flagrantly bad idea. Unlike NBA players, it simply doesn’t fly.