Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reboot the NBA: Ditch the Preseason, Add a Tournament and Cut the Season to 58 Games

What if players had more opportunity to win while playing fewer games?  What if NBA owners could create substantially more revenue, practically an additional season’s worth?  What if fans had more to root for rather than the polar extremes of a championship or a lottery pick?  What if each team’s final position in the season’s standings was made relevant for seeding in next season’s tournament?  What if the NBA could be as grand as the Olympics, as global as soccer, as frenetic as the NCAA, as fan-devoted as the NFL while spreading more hope than the Pope?

Of course let me get out of the way the subjects of arena lease agreements, broadcasting rights, revenue contracts, the CBA and all the legal and financial business arrangements of the NBA and the players’ union that I have no knowledge of and will attempted to maintain my distance from.  The focus (and assumption these obligations are based on) of this article will revolve around the current parameters of an 82 game regular season.

First eliminate the preseason.  Second start the regular season later and reduce it to where teams play each other twice, at home and on the road.  Next is to remove all notions of conferences and divisions and then allow the overall top 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs, which would play out as is currently constructed.  Going from an 82 to a 58 game regular season would add substantial value and urgency to games throughout the season and especially going into the playoffs.  My proposal is to replace the 24 games lost with a 20 game group-play tournament, similar to world cup soccer, to be held annually prior to the regular season.  This tournament will create unimaginable new life for basketball fans, players and owners while setting NBA apart from all other leagues.

Similar to the current divisional format, the tournament begins with 6 groups of 5 teams, seeded according to the previous season’s standing, where each team would play each other four times (group-play) to qualify and to establish seeding for the tournament.  Based on the win-loss percentage of teams in the 2012-13 season, the following groups would’ve competed in a 2013 NBA Tournament:

    Group A                                                Group B                                              Group C
1. Miami Heat                                2. Oklahoma City Thunder                   3. San Antonio Spurs
7. New York Knicks                       8. Indiana Pacers                                     9. Brooklyn Nets
13. Chicago Bulls                          14. Atlanta Hawks                                   15. Utah Jazz
19. Philadelphia 76ers                  20. Toronto Raptors                                 21. Portland Trailblazers
25. Sacramento Kings                  26. New Orleans Hornets                       27. Phoenix Suns
      Group D                                                Group E                                               Group F
 4. Denver Nuggets                         5. Los Angeles Clippers                          6. Memphis Grizzlies
10. Golden State Warriors            11. Los Angeles Lakers                           12. Houston Rockets
16. Boston Celtics                          17. Dallas Mavericks                              18. Milwaukee Bucks
22. Minnesota Timberwolves        23. Washington Wizards                        24. Detroit Pistons
28. Cleveland Cavaliers                29. Charlotte Bobcats                              30. Orlando Magic 

Please note the teams in each group will change each year according to where they finish in the overall regular season’s standings, providing further intrigue in addition to playoff and lottery seeding as the season finishes. 

In group-play, teams will play each team in their group four times, two at home and two on the road, for a minimum of 16 games and a maximum of 21 games, going through tournament-play.  Following 6 weeks of group-play the top 3 teams in each group would advance according to win percentage, point differential, points scored or whatever the competition committee decides to rank them by and then (after qualifying) seeded 1-18 accordingly.  There could be several identical records so whatever criteria are used it should readily translate to the court, thus providing a potential basketball laboratory where different incentives, rules and regulations can be tested.  Group-play is basically starting the season with playoffs -- 5 teams go in, 3 teams get out.  The final tournament would consist of 18 teams in 2 play-in games, a first round of 8 games, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final championship game.  The last 4 teams would have to compete in play-in games to round-out the brackets properly.  The winner of the 15th versus 18th seeded match up would play the 1st seed and the 2nd seed would play the winner of the 16th versus 17th seeded match up, these last four teams will have to play an extra game to win the tournament.  It is possible to go with the top 16 teams but that could punish teams in difficult groups considering they only play within their respective groups. The overall brackets would look something like this: 

1. v (15. v 18.) ________                                          
7. v 10.            ________   >  ________                            
3. v 14.            ________                         >    ________                                               
5. v 12.            ________   >  ________                           \
2. v (16. v 17.) ________                                                   __________   >  Champion
8. v 9.              ________   >  ________                           /
4. v 13.            ________                          >   ________
6. v 11.            ________   >  ________ 

Logistically group-play is impossible to consider as simple replacement to a month long preseason.  Time and travel are large obstacles since 16 games for each of the 30 teams means 480 total games.  Currently the regular season consists of each team playing 82 games over 26 weeks, however with a new 58 game regular season played over the course of 20 weeks (playoffs stay the same) and then taking the 4 weeks of now-defunct preseason games it is simple to locate the 10 weeks or so needed to conduct the tournament.

Travel and competitive balance are another obvious consideration to make.  As intriguing as the groups are, having teams travel coast-to-coast constantly in a short time frame does not bode well for competitive balance.  However it can be mitigated as the current NBA format routinely allows for competitive imbalance with back-to-back games where it is not unusual for teams with significant differences in rest to play each other.  For example near-coastal teams could play consecutive games against each other at their respective home games.  

Finally tournament-play would be conducted over two weekends much like the NCAA tournament from the sweet 16 onward and interest will also be generated in selecting the locations of the tournament which should rotate much like the All-Star game and Super Bowl.  A minimum of two arenas are required for the first weekend, 12 games over 4 days, hosting an afternoon and evening game on the Thursday and Friday and quarter-final games over each Saturday and Sunday afternoon or evening.  The final three games can held in one arena over the next weekend with the semi-final games on a Friday and the final on a Sunday.  I predict the schedule will be constructed to maximize interest, viewership, revenue, etc.  This is where it is easy to imagine the NBA taking the tournament overseas every now and then once it matures.

The new NBA season would have group-play begin in October so that the first weekend of the tournament could be played over Thanksgiving weekend finishing the next weekend.  The regular season would begin around Christmas running through April as it currently does with All-Star weekend and the playoffs following normally as well.  The draft process in June and the free agency period beginning in July would remain untouched as well.  It is my hope the tournament, group-play specifically, will both test and allow for better evaluation of players than the preseason.  An added incentive for teams not to treat the tournament like the preseason would be to reward a team winning all three, the tournament, regular season and playoffs, in a single season with induction directly into the NBA Hall of Fame as a triple-crown winning team.

Another impediment is time off for players and teams.  A championship team would have less than three months off before beginning to prepare for the tournament and possibly only two weeks off before beginning the regular season.  Previously I identified 24 games for each team as the primary difference to compensate for, which means 12 home games, unfortunately the 16 group-play games leaves us with 8 home games and thus I am short 4 home games.  However the value this tournament will add can restore any economic casualties related to those lost games.  The issues of making up lost games and off-season rest, much like the time, travel and competitive balance considerations made in group-play, are not impossible to mitigate but could be an easy obstacle for detractors to point to as there are no absolute and equitable answers. 

There it is -- an epic, annual tournament in addition to the regular season and playoffs -- putting the NBA where no league has gone before.  Greatness can be redefined with more trophies for teams and players to chase and possibly a third could be created for winning the regular season.  With further differentiation between the regular season, the playoffs and now the tournament, the legacy of players and teams will be further analyzed with added statistical ammunition, debating who can excel in which format.  For fans there will be a ton of fantasy type games and gambling opportunities, new rivalries between cities and added hope that your team or player could “shock the world”.  Finally for owners it is a new product to sell, exercising the same mechanisms already in existence to establish new broadcasting deals, new licensing and sponsorship rights, etc.  For all parties involved, fans, players, coaches and owners it sounds too good to be true.  What if?