How can the NBA be more like the EPL and Should It?

By: Chris DuPau @ChrisDuPrau

During a pre-NBA Finals press conference this week, Commissioner Adam Silver mention the possibility of creating new midseason and postseason tournaments in the NBA.   Silver has often been a commissioner who is not afraid of innovation citing the success these tournaments have in European soccer leagues.  Now, soccer has gotten much bigger in this country and there are tons of media outlets that show games from all over the world, but if you are a casual soccer fan, you may be wondering what the hell he is talking about.  

Silver mentioned England’s FA Cup in his press conference, which pits Premier League teams (England’s NBA for soccer) with lower English clubs in a single elimination tournament to crown the top team in Britain.  Premier League teams still vie for their league championship, but the FA cup gives them and every other team in England a chance to win another trophy. 

Silver also spoke about a post season tournament where teams outside of the top 6 in each conference would play a tournament to decide who would be the last 2 playoff teams in each conference. 

Both of these tournaments would be a drastic change and would take time for both NBA players and fans to acclimate to.  Can they work though?  

Post Season Tournament for the Final Playoff spots

Why it Would Work

Due to a decades long imbalance between the East and West, there has been far better teams who miss the playoffs out west than in the East.  Giving teams that fall just outside a chance to get in would add a nice wrinkle to the playoffs.  It would give teams that think they have nothing to play for the last few months a reason to NOT tank and try to set themselves up for the Final Playoff Tournament.  It would also give the battle for 6th and 7th in the conference a ton more juice.  If you’re team is 6th or higher, you might get a solid week to rest and refuel for the playoffs.  If you finish 7th, you will have to go through the rigor of the Final Playoff Tournament.  Do you think the Lakers would have shut down Lebron if they still had a chance to make the playoffs?  More meaningful games late in the year mean more revenue for everybody in the sport and more hope given to fan bases who otherwise would be out of the hunt by February. 

Why it wouldn’t work

Say you are a bad team, say you’re a really bad team.  Say you’re the Knicks.  Would the Knicks as an organization want to give up the chance of a top draft pick for the opportunity to get smacked in the playoffs by the Bucks or Raptors?  As a sad Knicks fan, I can say I would not.  Now the players may care, but you would have a lot of teams who would not want to win the Final Playoff Tournament because it may move their draft pick from top 5 to 15.  Sure, you might get a little playoff experience, but chances are if you were that bad, you would rather have the draft pick than a 4-1 gentlemen’s sweep in the first round.  The idea is that the playoff would keep teams from tanking, but what it could actually do is make for some unwatchable games in the early part of the Tournament.  And, the teams that survive would be exhausted facing teams that now besides being better than them are rested as well. 

How to make it work

14 teams in the NBA miss the playoffs.  If we count the 7 and 8 seeds in each conference that puts our tournament at 18 eligible teams.  Too many.  We are going to allow the top 8 non-playoff teams (regardless of conference) to play in the tournament.  The teams that were 7th and 8th in their conference will receive a bye.  The 8 non-playoff teams will play and whittle themselves down to 4.  The teams that lost will be added to the lottery draft order based on record.   The 4 that won will play 4 teams that make up the 7th and 8th seeds.  After they play, the remaining 4 teams will be in the playoffs. 

Here is where we can make it REAL FUN. 

Those teams play in a bracketed tournament.  The 2 who win will be the 7 seeds.  Whomever wins that game will be the higher 7th seed meaning they will play the lower 2-seed.  The same will happen for the 8th seeds.  This can really change things if the conferences are imbalanced in strong teams.  In 2008, the Boston Celtics on their way to the Finals played the Atlanta Hawks in the 1st round and won in 7.  Atlanta had 37 wins.  Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors missed the playoffs and had 48 wins.  Instead of playing a really crappy 8 seed, the Celtics could have been stuck with a 48 win team that beat a 1-seed the year before.  

As a fan, not only will we get games that matter, but we will also get matchups that we would never get.  It’s like the Hockey Wildcard system, which for the most part I like.  This can definitely work and has a good chance of happening in some form. 

FA Cup style single elimination tournament mid-season

Why it could work

One word…revenue.  This would give the NBA more games to sell to TV partners.  The more games places like TNT and ESPN show, the higher the next TV deal would be.  The higher the next TV deal goes, the higher the salary cap will go.  The higher the salary cap goes, the more money players make (Also owners would make more money too if the TV deal goes up.).  Midseason NBA is a slog.  Games seem to blend into each other, the play deteriorates a bit and interest as a whole in the NBA tends to lessen until after March Madness.  Having this tournament could be a Red Bull for February basketball.  The chance to win a championship could give both players and fans a reason to really pay attention to the middle of the season. 

Why it wouldn’t work

The NBA season already goes from late October to mid-June.  If you were to add a mid-season tournament, you would have to either eliminate some games (we’ll get into that in a bit) or stretch the season out even more.  You already have players sitting more games than ever because of team imposed “load management.”  More games will only intensify the issue. 

Are people going to care?  As American sports fans, we have been told for generations that the team standing at the end of the season is the champion.  Are we really going to get excited about a “NBA Cup” championship?  Will players care to abuse their body to get a “Cup”?  There are only two examples I can think of where people care about championships that aren’t “THE” championship.  In college basketball you have the conference tournaments which as a DIE HARD Villanova fan, I care about, but I probably am not going to lose sleep over.  The other is college football which along a with a litany of Bowls that make a team technically a champion have conference championships that mean a lot, but have lost some luster with the creation of the CFP.  It kind of works in college, but American sports fans may have a hard time caring about a championship that is secondary in their professional sports.

How to Make it work

The key to this is to make people care about it.  To do that, you need to make the tournament mean something. 

I enjoy EPL soccer.  I don’t for the most part have a favorite team, but if I had to pick one that pick would be the now lower division team Wigan.  I don’t know why I like them, and right now I can’t name a person on their team, but in 2013, they got me hooked.  They were fighting for their life to stay in the Premier League and fighting the big teams for an FA Cup Title.  Wigan ended up defeating Man City for the FA Cup title.  I was excited.  I thought that maybe winning the Cup guaranteed them a spot in the EPL the following season.  It did not.  They were demoted and have not really been close to coming back since.   Maybe due to tradition, the FA Cup means something to people in England, but if you start a FA Cup style tournament in the NBA, you won’t get buy-in unless it means something.  So, make it mean something. 

If a team wins what we will call the “NBA Cup,” give them homecourt throughout the playoffs.  The NBA has so few upsets in the playoffs, but say a team like Portland or Utah won the Cup.  They traditionally have great home court records.  No team will want to have to go on the road and play 4 out of 7 against them in the playoffs.  If you are a top team, you want to make sure you have home court in the playoffs.  The Warriors don’t have it against the Raptors in this year’s Finals, but don’t you think they would have played hard in the NBA Cup tournament to try and get it?  Home court for every series not involving the Cup winner would still be based on record. 

Now, if there is an upset and a team outside of the top 8 in the conference (or top 6 if the post season tournament is introduced) wins the NBA Cup, they get a guaranteed playoff spot.  Now the chance of a true bottom team winning are slim, but a borderline playoff team could get hot and win the Cup.  The Heat 3 years ago finished the season 31-10 after a 10-31 start but missed the playoffs via tiebreaker.  That year they had a huge winning streak in February.  If that streak had been in the NBA Cup, it could have given them the chance to continue their second half of the season’s magic into the postseason. 

Now, in my mind, you’re going to need at least 2 or 3 weeks to do this single elimination tournament.  The NBA season is already long enough.  The league would probably have to cut the amount of games to 72.  However, because of the NBA Cup, there would be no loss of revenue.  A team would play somewhere between 1 and 5 games depending on format.  That puts the total amount of games during the season at 73-77.  Five fewer games with no loss of revenue.  The players would actually get more rest and not have to deal with a loss of pay. 

I think both of these ideas are long shots, but I like them both.  Not only for the excitement they would add, but because they are proactive ideas.  The NBA is doing great financially and is trying to find ways to keep people invested in their sport.  You may not want the NBA to be more like English soccer now, but a few years from now, you may think it’s the greatest thing to happen since the shot clock.

Keep on Keepin’on

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