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June 26, 2019

Report: NBA discussing possibility of shorter schedule, midseason tournament

The NBA is a long way from making formal changes to the league's structure, but they have begun discussing major changes to the in-season calendar, including a midseason tournament and a shorter schedule, according to a new report from ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz.

Arnovitz, who categorized these discussions as, "very exploratory," highlighted what appears to be discussions between various power brokers across the NBA.

The NBA is formally exploring how it might use its 75th anniversary season as an opportunity to test some of its bolder initiatives -- not only a mid-season cup and postseason play-in tournament, but also a reduction in the 82-game regular season schedule.

On a June 17 conference call, a committee that consists of approximately a dozen top team executives from both basketball and business operations discussed with the league office ideas for alternatives to the traditional NBA schedule for the 2021-22 season. In what sources characterize as a wide-ranging brainstorming session with accompanying documents, participants contemplated how the NBA could introduce the aforementioned tournaments, as well as an abbreviated slate of regular-season games, to accommodate the additional events.

According to those with knowledge of the conversation, which sources regard as very exploratory, the proposed reforms would be adopted initially as a pilot program. The NBA would have the chance to observe the trial run and evaluate the long-term viability of such a schedule design. [ESPN]

The league has already begun to make changes to their schedule over the last few years to account for "load management" and its impact on the product, but spacing out back-to-back games and reducing player workloads has been a major league-wide initiative. Arnovitz says the numbers discussed on this recent call went as low as 58 games (a home-and-away meeting vs. every team in the league), though there was "limited" interest in a major games played reduction.

Cutting games completely is another matter entirely, and the hurdles there are predominantly in one area — money. Everyone would love for their players to be well-rested, able to play the largest possible percentage of their games, and in better shape for the playoffs. Few people on either side of the equation want to sacrifice the revenue it might cost to get there, whether you're talking players, franchises, or the sponsors who pay to have their name(s) plastered all over arenas and broadcasts.

For the Sixers specifically, the basketball benefits of a reduced schedule are clear over the short term. Their franchise player, Joel Embiid, is a big man who could stand to rest more and preserve his body for the moments that matter in the playoffs. If the league were to build more natural rest periods into the schedule, the discussion about whether to play Embiid in back-to-backs or sit him for a couple of games here and there would basically be rendered moot. The Sixers would get all or most of the benefits while removing some uncertainty for their fans about whether he would be good to go on a given night.

There are plenty of side benefits, too. The 82-game schedule has made it so teams have very little time to practice in-season without sacrificing rest time for their players. More time between games would mean more time to go through practices and work on new wrinkles, which would help teams absorb players mid-season better than they are able to know. No solace for the 2018-19 Sixers, obviously.

The mid-season tournament, however, is another matter entirely, and one that I think is absolutely incoherent in an NBA setting.

The league is trying in some ways to adopt common practices from European soccer, where losing the league title doesn't necessarily mean you end the season without a trophy. England's FA Cup, for example, is a national soccer tournament that involves clubs from the English Premier League all the way down to Level 10 of the English football league system. Lower-division teams are drawn regionally in the early rounds, and as the competition progresses, clubs in the top two divisions are not drawn into the competition until what they call the "third" round in January, but is effectively the ninth set of games in the competition.

Most often, tournaments like these serve two purposes for the participants: 

  1. Bigger clubs, more concerned with the league standings and European competitions, get run-outs for younger players in their academies and bench players who are in need of minutes to keep their fitness and interest levels up
  2. Smaller clubs, whether from the top division or elsewhere, get a chance to play with the big boys and score a potentially historic upset against them 

The second point here is critical to understanding why fans have any interest in these tournaments. For a team in the fourth division of English football, a tournament like the FA Cup may be the only time they ever have a chance to see their club host a giant of European football or travel to see their club play a game with stakes in a historic venue like Anfield or Old Trafford. It is hard to replicate that moment in a tournament involving nothing but NBA teams, who have all seen their team win and lose against the other 29 teams many times over.

Are people going to care about, say, the Sixers vs. the Suns simply because it's in a tournament setting? I would argue no. Absent major financial incentives for the teams and players, it is hard to imagine the league's best teams would do anything other than punt a midseason prize in pursuit of the title that matters to all of them. 

I'm not sure you're getting any additional interest in markets where this might represent their top prize of the year, either. Is a Charlotte Hornets or Detroit Pistons fan going to get fired up because they beat a contender resting all of their good players in a midseason tournament, and hold onto that when they get smoked as the eight seed in the playoffs? I doubt that.

That, of course, doesn't mean the league shouldn't be trying to add more intrigue in the middle of a long season. But within the American sports infrastructure, it's hard to figure out how that makes a dent during a part of the calendar that is filled with big-time events in other sports.

I am sure I will eat these words when I'm covering the Chamberlain Cup presented by Cialis in 2021.

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