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November 23, 2019

Report: NBA considering sweeping changes including in-season tournament, playoff re-seeding

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18_Sixers_76ers_huddle_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia 76ers huddle before taking the court at the Wells Fargo Center.

National NBA ratings are dropping and regular-season interest in their product is waning, and the league is trying to figure out a solution. They are serious enough about a fix that the league is reportedly considering major structural changes, including the creation of an in-season tournament and re-seeding the playoffs starting at the conference finals, according to a new report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.

Discussions have already taken place between the NBA, the Players Association, and the league's broadcast partners to try to find a solution that works for everyone. According to Woj and Lowe, the hope on the league side of things is to get any major changes implemented in time for 2021-22, the league's 75th anniversary season.

You're here for the nitty gritty, so here are the details Woj and Lowe have provided on the major changes, along with some of my personal thoughts on the matter.

In-season tournament

Modeled after domestic tournaments held in European soccer leagues around the world, the NBA is hoping to hold a tournament that runs concurrently with the regular season. 

In fact, in a twist compared to how these things work elsewhere, the NBA's vision is for the pre-knockout round fixtures to be games that are part of the regular-season schedule. Winners from the six divisions, plus the two teams with the next best records after the top-six qualifiers, will then move on to a single-elimination stage.

Building the early games into the regular season schedule is actually a smart way of implementing this, as it skirts around the problem with domestic tournaments abroad. In England's League Cup, for example, many of the bigger and better clubs field lineups comprised of their academy players early in the tournament to buy their stars some rest, and while these regular season games could still be load managed, counting toward the final league standings makes them important even if a team doesn't care about winning the tournament.

The idea of a midseason tournament is appealing as a way for teams who don't win the title to bring home some hardware, and the big hook for the players will no doubt be to fight for a bigger cash prize. But there are reasons to be concerned this style of tournament will not work within the NBA construct, as it differs from the European model.

For one, the model works for soccer because it is offering something they don't have otherwise — a playoff/tournament format. Their league titles are decided by playing two games apiece against every other team in the league, so a tournament actually brings something different to the table that fans and teams alike aren't getting otherwise. Do elite tournament matchups give us any more fodder for discussion than big games on the calendar already do? If a team like say the Charlotte Hornets makes a run through a midseason tournament, will anyone actually care? 

The "magic" of the soccer equivalents is that for some of the clubs involved, this is the only chance they'll ever have to go toe-to-toe with the giants of the sport. There is no equivalent of a lower division team scoring an upset of Man United, for example, as even the terrible NBA teams regularly beat good ones. All these teams operate under the same salary cap, which means there's not the same feeling of a cost-strapped underdog taking down a financial giant.

There's also the question of whether teams actually want to subject their best players to risk injury in a fledgling tournament at the potential cost of losing them for games they know matter to their fans. A good team could get to the tournament quarterfinals and then just rest all their good players for a game that doesn't really matter in their big picture, punting on the game to buy time off for their stars.

To create history you have to start somewhere, so the league shouldn't be punished for trying to start a new tradition, I'm just not convinced it's one that has any real reason to exist, outside of creating more ad partnerships and trying to turn a few more games per year into "premium" items on ticket markets.

(By the way, the plan now is to have this happen around Thanksgiving, ostensibly to avoid some other big events on the sports calendar. I hate to break it to the NBA, but if football is being played, their product is going to be playing second fiddle. The players don't want to lose any of their time off during the All-Star break, I get it, but that's easily the most logical time to hold it.)

Playoff changes 

Now, here's the more controversial of the two ideas — the NBA wants to retool the playoff format, changing how things unfold for the showcase of their product everyone looks forward to.

The league wants to implement changes on both ends of the playoffs:

  1. Rather than the 1-8 seeds making it into the playoffs in each conference, the league has suggested the 7-10 seeds in each conference having play-in games for the right to advance. Seven and eight would play for an automatic berth, and then the loser of that game would face the winner of 9 vs. 10 for the right to appear in the playoffs
  2. Reseeding of the playoffs based on regular-season record once teams advance to the conference finals. The goal here, obviously, is to have it so the league can potentially have its two best teams playing in the NBA Finals

The problem with these ideas in conjunction with one another is that they are essentially fighting for completely opposite ideas.

If your suggestion is that the regular season should matter more than it does right now, most of your fans would probably agree and it's an admirable goal to strive for. The problem is that the play-in tournament directly contradicts that message — forget the entire season's worth of games you just played, you now have one game to decide your playoff fate. There will be fans excited by that prospect, perhaps the sort of fans the NBA needs to win over as ratings drop, but it's a mockery of what the NBA's playoff format represents. Whereas the NFL, MLB, and NHL are all leagues where you can catch lightning in a bottle if you simply make the postseason, the NBA tends to reward consistent excellence.

(This could help spruce up the league's dire stretch from March through mid-April that good teams almost always slog through. More teams being in the mix for a chance at the playoffs means more "bad" teams will compete down the stretch, though weirdly, that could amplify the league's problem. The Detroit Pistons competing a little harder in March is not going to make teams like the Sixers, Clippers, Bucks, etc. care about those games any more than they already do, nor will most Pistons fans think getting to the No. 10 seed gives them any hope at a deep playoff run.)

In theory, I like the second piece of this proposal a bit, though even that's not perfect. Unless you're going to tweak the schedule so that every team plays the same exact schedule, their regular-season records are ultimately not apples-to-apples comparisons.

(An alternative suggestion — the league should allow the No. 1 overall seed to select the opponent they want to play in the conference finals. The deeper in the playoffs teams get, the more matchups and styles matter. You want to add some drama and intrigue to the final rounds? Watch what happens when the best team in the league tells another elite opponent, "We respect you the least."

Speaking of the contents of the schedule, this overarching proposal doesn't come with a huge reduction in games. In fact, while Woj and Lowe say this would come with a "minimum" of 78 games in the regular season, the possibility exists for one team to get to 83. That unlikely scenario would mean a team would have to go to the final of the midseason tournament and then make it to the final playoff play-in game as the No. 9 or 10 seed, but all the problems of a lengthy regular season still seem to exist in this new proposal.

It's important to note none of these changes are close to official, and the league has to work on a lot of different machinations before they gather for their annual board of governors meeting in April 2020. Even still, bold changes appear to be on the table for the NBA, so maybe you should start saving up some money for a trip to the 2021 Kia Motors Classic just in case.

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