Too much of the NBA season doesn’t feel like it matters.
For good teams, the NBA regular season is just an appetizer for the main course of the playoffs. Of course, the season matters for playoff positioning. But while they all count the same in the standings, as they say, only by March and April is the finish line close enough that the horse race feels real urgency.
For average and bad teams, only the early part of the regular season feels important. Then, hope is still high for an aspirational burst onto the competitive NBA landscape, perhaps an aspirational playoff run. But by midseason, nearly all of those teams have been proven to be pretenders. By the end of the season, many are sitting their best players in an effort to gain more ping-pong balls.
In an effort to fix this, the NBA is considering the introduction of two tournaments according to ESPN reporting: one in midseason, one at the end of the season. Both seek to make everything feel like it matters more; both have the potential to do the exact opposite.
We’ll start with the midseason tournament, a 30-team competition which brings to mind the domestic cups of soccer leagues worldwide. The NBA has proposed to the National Basketball Players Association that the 82-game schedule be reduced to 78 games, with the difference being made up by this single-elimination tournament midseason. Again, the idea is to have teams play extra games where the stakes are higher, and there’s an actual trophy on the line, over the grand malaise that the phrase “just one of 82” brings to mind.
For example, English soccer’s F.A. Cup, which has existed since 1871, does much the same thing. It puts every English soccer team in a randomly generated tournament. Premier League clubs have to win six games in a row to lift the trophy, and when your team does, it’s a pretty cool thing.
The grand risk is that NBA teams will not see lifting the “NBA Midseason Cup presented by GEICO” or whatever as a “pretty cool thing” and instead as a “potentially detrimental distraction” to lifting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy at the end of the real playoffs. Without a history of tradition, winning the midseason cup won’t matter, and teams will rest their best players for the real games. We see that in U.S.' attempted implementation of the F.A. Cup model, the U.S. Open Cup.
So the NBA is reportedly considering extra incentives to make the players and teams care about winning the midseason tournament. The simplest incentive is “money," and giving a lot of it away might well work. They’re considering a post-Thanksgiving window for this tournament that would put it before the NFL playoffs, but after the college football regular season, meaning it would compete in the national consciousness against some largely meaningless college football bowl games; seemingly a good time of the year to do it.
The other potential addition to the NBA schedule is a postseason play-in tournament for the bottom seeds. The idea here is to have the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth seeds in each conference play a tournament to decide which team gets in the NBA Playoffs itself. The seventh seed would play the eighth seed for the top spot, then the remaining team would play the winner of the nine-ten game for win-or-go-home berth to the playoffs.
This tournament has a lot going for it, in my estimation. Some of the most fun games of recent Major League Baseball memory have been the Wild Card play-in games at the end of the season, and this mini-bracket seems like it could have a lot of the same energy.
Furthermore, it’d make the regular season matter more all the way down the conference standings: a team in eleventh or twelfth place that might ordinarily give up and tank down the stretch might be more inclined to go for the chance at a playoff berth, and the playoff money that comes with it. For teams ranked at the bottom of the playoff race, they’d want to fight for a sixth seed or higher and avoid the high-stakes tournament that followed. It’d generally be a good time.
They’re both worthy experiments, in my opinion.
Yes, the midseason tournament could turn out to be a disaster: everyone could rest players, fans might be confused by the whole notion, and it could be bizarre. But it does have the potential to be very fun, and inject a modicum of emotion into what is usually a dreary, underwatched portion of the NBA schedule. And the postseason play-in tournament gives more teams something to play for late in the season, always a good thing.
And of course, there’s always the potential for reversal. We can go back to the original 82-game schedule if the tournaments don’t work. If the tournaments turn out to be New Coke, we can revert to Coca-Cola Classic.
Nothing ventured means nothing gained, and the NBA’s new venture is a path worth going down.