In the first two installments of my "how to fix the NBA" series, I offered ideas on how to get rid of the competitive imbalance between the two conferences (eliminate them) and how to improve the quality of the games themselves (get rid of the back-to-backs). All that's left now is to figure out a way to fill in that two week gap in the schedule I've thought up. Something to really stir up some fan interest -- from the casuals and the obsessives -- for the week after that culmination of Concussion-Ball, the Super Bowl.
NASCAR does this, in a way. The first race of their season, The Daytona 500, is the biggest. It doesn't count more in terms of championship points, but it does have the biggest prize purse for the drivers and carries the most prestige. Similarly in the PGA, The Masters is the most popular of the four golf majors and it's also held earliest of the four, one of the first events of their season.
One of the main reasons the college basketball vs. the NBA debate rages on is because of the elegant design and concept of the NCAA tournament to decide their champion. A 64-team single-elimination format, with four brackets of 16 squads fighting it out. It's the perfect set-up to wager on, no matter one's level of knowledge and dedication to the sport. The NBA offers us nothing like it, with its best-of-seven series and four playoff rounds that last forever. There's no doubt that the pro game is far superior technically and aesthetically, but when it comes to deciding a champion, the NCAA's got the upper hand in terms of creating drama and high stakes. The NBA can't match it unless their playoff series reaches a seventh game, which rarely happens, and even then those games often don't wind up being particularly memorable or classic, because the two competing teams know each other too well over the previous six slug-fests to throw in any unexpected wrinkles.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suggested bringing an FA Cup style type of tournament into the league and I must say I love the idea. Having just one trophy to fight over, just one champion for an eight month season, seems like an absurd concept in the context of the entire world's professional leagues. Half the teams are out of any realistic contention after 30 games, they're mathematically eliminated with two months to go in the league calender and fans of most teams are left twiddling their thumbs for May and June.
For that reason I think soccer has it right when it comes to pro sports. (They've got the right idea with relegation too, but that's a topic for another day.) If you're uninitiated, the FA Cup in England's Premier League is a tournament where all the club teams from the various divisions are placed in the same pot and paired off, regardless of their differences in talent and salary. Imagine the Atlanta Hawks playing the Purdue Boilermakers and you get the idea. It's a single-elimination tournament that happens on odd weekends throughout the season and it creates wonderful David vs. Goliath type drama in the first few rounds. It's not unique to England either. There are similar tournaments in Spain (the Copa Del Rey), Italy, France, Germany, even in MLS.
Obviously in American sports we don't really have different leagues with different divisions --unless you want to count the D-League-- so we can't duplicate it exactly, but we can still have a single elimination tournament. Why not?
Take the 30 teams at the All-Star break and rank them by the standings. Add in the previous season's D-League championship finalists to the mix to make it an even 32. You've got four brackets of eight and off you go. Select four locations around the league to play the first two rounds of the tournament, playing half the games every other day for four days, and then bring the eight remaining teams to the location of the All-Star Game.
Give everybody a couple days off and again play the four games over two days to get down to the Final Four, then the Championship Game and there you go. Play the semis on Friday, the All-Star Game on Saturday and the final on Sunday. The players still left in the tournament who were selected to the All-Star Game can have their spots filled with alternates. It's always more prestigious for the players to be named for the game than to play in it anyway.
Obviously we'd have to create incentive here to make it worthwhile for the players and coaches, besides a shiny trophy. Start with $200,000 for each guy on each team that advances to round two and keep doubling the money all the way through. That kind of scratch will wind up being pretty meaningful, especially to the guys at the end of the bench who aren't making the max.
We'd further incentivize it by giving the winner an automatic playoff spot and home court advantage in the first round, regardless of their standings. If the winner winds up earning those things over the course of the season anyway, we'll let them pick their first round opponent, regardless of standings. The D-League teams wouldn't have a chance, obviously, but it would create some exposure for their guys and maybe a couple of them can get a 10-day contract out of it.
Similar to the actual FA Cup, it'd be left to the individual coaches and teams to decide their level of involvement. Gregg Popovich, for example, might elect to rest some of his best players in an early round of the tournament, taking his chances that they could beat the Sixers without Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. My guess is that the competitive instincts would eventually kick in and everyone would take tournament pretty seriously, for the thrill of unique single elimination, the money, the bragging rights, all of it. Sure, over a long season and then four rounds of playoffs the cream always rises to the top and the best team wins, but any NBA squad can get hot for a couple of weeks. I think we'd see some fun and unexpected results.
In the end, besides creating another trophy to win, we'd have a unique event to draw in new eyeballs to the NBA and really get people invested in the season. If the league is serious about thinking outside of the box and growing the pie to compete with football, it's going to take some kind of radical change. I'm tired of Europeans having and college basketball fans having all the single elimination fun. Best of all, we'd be able to gamble on it, something Silver's already on the record as being ready to support.