Should the NBA get serious about a midseason tournament?
LAS VEGAS -- Fresh off a frenzied free agency period and an exciting Summer League opener between Andrew Wiggins' Cavaliers and Jabari Parker's Bucks that drew monster television ratings and generated significant social media activity, commissioner Adam Silver told reporters this week that the league is investigating new ways to fill out its calendar. No wonder, if the NBA can continue drawing headlines through late-July, why not look to spice up some lulls elsewhere?
Silver, who addressed a host of topics following a Board of Governors meeting, said the NBA is weighing a possible end-of-season show to acknowledge its award recipients (MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, etc.). Of greater interest to many was the concept of a mid-season tournament, which has been the subject of some discussion in the past, with much pushback against the feasibility of such an endeavor given the NBA's existing schedule, which is long and cramped. Nevertheless, Silver said the concept has been discussed internally. While nothing is imminent, the NBA seems keen to follow soccer's lead on the subject.
"The competition committee talked about and seemed excited about potentially [running] some sort of midseason tournament," Silver said this week. "[We are in the] very early days in the discussion of that, but we're looking at other opportunities in the league to create excitement. As one of our general managers said at the meeting, there's very few things that you can win in the NBA. When you think about European soccer, for example, they have the FA Cup and they have other tournaments throughout the season."
The first-year commissioner added that Las Vegas could be "a terrific neutral site location" for a midseason tournament.
Does this concept sound weird, crazy and too difficult? Maybe it shouldn't. The following is a modest proposal that attempts to address the biggest stumbling blocks.
Should the NBA really be adding more games to a schedule that includes 82 regular season games and as many as 28 postseason games?
It would seem preferable to re-brand existing regular season games as part of the tournament rather than attempt to add more games to the schedule. The NBA's schedule -- roughly seven preseason games, 82 regular-season games and as many as 28 playoff games -- runs from exhibition games in early October through the Finals in mid-June, with only a few days off for the All-Star break in February. There is no obvious gap to squeeze in a tournament of meaningful length, and a number of star players, including LeBron James, have made noise about extending the All-Star break for some extra rest.
Next season, the NBA will play regular season games in London and Mexico as part of its Global Games series, and those neutral site games count like every other game. That sets a convenient precedent for labeling neutral site regular-season games as part of a "tournament."
Which teams invited to play in the tournament?
As Las Vegas Summer League proves, running a tournament with 20+ teams, let alone all 30 NBA teams, in a short amount of time is unwieldy. To win in Vegas, teams could play as many as five times in six days. That will never fly during the regular season. Nor should it.
The biggest misconception about the tournament concept is that this needs to be an extended, lengthy ordeal. On the contrary, the perfect midseason tournament would be simple and short, so as to keep the rest of the schedule intact as much as possible.
The most logical way to invite teams? One option would be to simply play a round-robin series of games among the four conference finalists from the previous season. Such a tournament this year would include Miami, Indiana, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The regular season match-ups among those teams are always highly anticipated, and they would surely attract even more eyeballs with an even larger stage and a trophy prize attached, although this year's hypothetical event would have suffered from James' departure for Cleveland and Lance Stephenson's move to Charlotte.
Another option, which is even better from a marketing standpoint: run a six-team tournament using the previous season's division winners. Right now, winning a division isn't a particularly meaningful accomplishment, to the point that some teams refuse to even hoist the banner in their arena. A midseason trophy might not change that entirely, but being invited to the tournament would be a nice carrot to reward an oft-overlooked accomplishment.
How would the tournament play out?
A four-team tournament would be really easy. Miami would play Indiana and San Antonio would play Oklahoma City in the first round. The winners would face off and the losers would face off. Then, because the NBA would need to account for their regular season match-ups, a third set of games would be needed -- during the tournament or later -- to square things up.
For example, let's say Miami beats Indiana and San Antonio beats Oklahoma City. Miami would then face San Antonio in the tournament championship, with Indiana playing Oklahoma City in the consolation game. Miami and Oklahoma City would then need to play a game, and Indiana and San Antonio would need to play a game, to ensure that the regular season schedule match-ups remain the same. Right now, all East teams face all West teams twice during the regular season.
Another option would be for all four teams to play each other once, with record, head-to-head, and point differential available to serve as tie-breakers. Such a setup might reduce the excitement of a championship game, but maybe it's cleaner from a scheduling standpoint.
A six-team tournament with the division winners would be a little bit more complicated, as the round-robin option would not be in play. Perhaps the best way to run this would be to give the conference champions a "bye" and let the other four division winners duke it out. For example, the Clippers and Thunder could play for the right to play the Spurs and advance to the tournament's championship game. Similarly, the Raptors and Pacers would play for the right to play the Heat and advance to the title game. A consolation match and perhaps a third set of games would be needed to square up the schedule to account for the different win/loss scenarios.
When and where would the tournament be held?
An ideal option would be to slice a week out of the preseason -- the number of exhibition games has always been a bit excessive, and it feels even more gratuitous now that many players are working out and/or playing year-round -- and institute a week-long break after All-Star Weekend. To be clear, the preseason would begin at the same time, the regular season's start date would be moved up slightly to allow more games to be played before All-Star Weekend.
The new tournament, consisting of either two or three games, would then commence on Wednesday after the All-Star break, with the championship played on Sunday. The rest of the NBA's teams could enjoy the week off and begin play on the following Monday.
Rather than using Las Vegas or some other domestic city as the neutral site, it would make more sense to use this cup as a chance to market the NBA globally. London, Berlin or Madrid would all be natural sites for such an event, and the NBA could use the event as the centerpiece of an expanded "Global Games" slate. The event could rotate among venues year after year and perhaps even make it to Beijing or Shanghai.
Of course, schedule allowances would need to be made for participating teams, giving them a cushion day or two upon their arrival back stateside.
What would the tournament be called?
The easy, no-risk name for a six-team tournament of division champs would be the "Champions Cup." It's short, sweet and alliterative, and it fits the soccer-ization the NBA seems to be seeking. There's also a level of prestige to the name and, most importantly, it's not trendy. The name must be able to hold up for decades, and a simpler name is better in that regard. Everyone can agree that it's not worth instituting a tournament unless it's in the league's long-term plans, otherwise it will run the risk of being gimmicky.
What should the trophy look like and what should it be named?
Sticking with the international theme, let's go with a gold or bronze basketball that can spin on an axis, much like a desk globe. Can't you envision Manu Ginobili giving the ball a good spin before holding the trophy above his head for the photo opportunity?
The predictable thing for the NBA league office to do would be to name the trophy for this global event after former commissioner David Stern, given his reputation for expanding the game during his three decades of leadership, but that idea might not stand up to public scrutiny. After all, Stern only just retired, and he's a bit of a polarizing figure.
Perhaps the Hakeem Olajuwon Trophy would be capable of building a greater consensus, while also underscoring the international theme. The fit there just feels right, much like the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy. The same could be said about a Yao Ming Trophy.
One final option that would fit as more of a symbolic tribute: The Drazen Petrovic Trophy. His reputation among the greatest players that Europe has produced, his ties to the NBA, and his lasting legacy following his tragic death all make him a worthy choice.
Would this tournament actually generate interest?
It's not fair to compare a start-up tournament to the well-established European soccer competitions. The high bar that those competitions, and their history, represent should be a goal for the NBA, not an immediate measuring stick. A more fair comparison point is the NBA's current Global Games format, which is building slowly and didn't really generate much buzz this past season. The biggest headline to come out of was a smoky arena in Mexico that forced the cancelation of a game between the Timberwolves and Spurs, and led some observers to wonder whether the security risks were worth the undertaking.
Surely the NBA can do better than that. Should we really be surprised that Spurs/Timberwolves in Mexico wasn't appointment viewing until there was a near crisis? That feels like a throwaway idea and not a full commitment. Now, imagine Chris Paul and Blake Griffin going head-to-head with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in London's O2 arena, with a match-up against the Spurs on deck before the championship. Imagine the TNT crew broadcasting the five-day event, with Charles Barkley cracking jokes about the Queen and Shaquille O'Neal doing his impersonation of Big Ben ("Bong, bong, bong"). Imagine special edition Champions Cup jerseys from Adidas, with patches on the shoulder bearing the flag of each player's home country. Imagine a made-for-TV cup presentation, with Silver, Olajuwon, Yao Ming and others coming together to honor the champions. Down the road, it's easy to envision international players like Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash or Pau Gasol providing color commentary on the broadcasts.
This event might not compare to All-Star Weekend, but hopefully that last paragraph got the blood pumping a little bit. Remember, the current comparison point is the late-February/early-March swoon that seems to happen every year. There's also no rule against expanding the tournament down the road, should it prove to be successful.
What are the biggest drawbacks?
As long as the tournament is kept to two or three games per team, the scheduling issue -- the number one objection that always seems to come up -- really isn't that complicated.
Instead, the biggest issue with the format laid out above, by far, is that the NBA's rich get richer, and the demands upon its best players and teams increase. Setting up a tournament featuring only the top teams does exclude teams that are likely going to be excluded from the playoffs, which might feel like a double whammy. Also, when James asked for an extra break after All-Star Weekend, he certainly wasn't envisioning the possibility of flying to London to play three games in five nights while the rest of the league watched from home.
The rest problem is easier to address than the exclusion problem. After all, these aren't extra games, they are regular season games, so extra rest days will be given back to participating teams at other points in the season. Savvy players like James should understand the importance of generating global interest and the long-term revenue potential that could be created. Stars like big stages, and this tournament, even if kept short and sweet, would be a spectacle.
It's worth noting that it's impossible to craft a feasible tournament setup that doesn't leave someone out. There's just not enough time to play through six rounds to get to a champion, and doing so would create so many schedule permutations that a chunk of everyone's season would need to be flexed depending on the result. Do the ends don't justify the means at that point? And is it worth pursuing the Cup concept at all if the league's headliners aren't guaranteed to be directly involved?
Another issue is the loss of home games for teams that are involved. The four-team or six-team field would need to alternate who gets the home and road team designations so that no one team is unfairly punished by losing multiple home games. Silver would need to find a method for compensating participating teams to make up for their loss of home arena gate receipts.
Should this tournament happen?
The Champions Cup really should get off the ground. Instituting such a tournament would:
1) Legitimize the Global Games
2) Extend the excitement generated by All-Star Weekend into a portion of the NBA's calendar which often sees a lull
3) Engage international audiences and markets in a meaningful, sustainable way
4) Reward division winners with more attention
5) Add a tangible recognition and bragging rights for the league's successful teams
6) Streamline the NBA's schedule by cutting out the fat from the preseason
7) Add the rest week for a majority of the league that the players have hinted about wanting
The more you think about the concept, the less harebrained the idea sounds. Really, why shouldn't the NBA put something like this together?