The NBA will begin a mid-season tournament this year. As with all new developments in sports, it’s being met with a certain amount of speculation. The league is drawing from soccer leagues, where the practice has patina. Will American audiences be able to embrace a non-championship “Championship” when a team hoists the first NBA Cup? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I don’t get the in season tournament. Are you excited for this? It just seems like a way to create more winners without actually winning. I wouldn’t even care if the Blazers won it. We’re one step closer to participation trophies I guess. When will it end? Convince me I’m wrong.
I mean...I’m not thrilled about you invoking participation trophies. There are wholly legitimate reasons to honor effort and participation at basic levels of sport. The aims are different. Basic lessons matter besides just winning.
That said, this is the NBA...the most professional of professional sports. Athletes are highly-compensated. Winning is the expectation, not a side effect. Winning an NBA Championship is the ultimate goal. Diluting that doesn’t improve the product, at least not for me.
On the other hand, does it hurt? I don’t begrudge them trying. Maybe it’ll become like the Edsel. It could take off, though. I’d rather the league believe in a project and execute it than sit on their hands. The worst that happens is somebody raises a relatively-meaningless trophy for a few years and fans bases have another reason to crow, albeit quietly. At best, maybe it becomes like the Intercontinental or United States titles in wrestling federations, an indicator of teams to watch, even if they’re not ready for the World Belt yet. (At the point the NBA institutes a Cruiserweight Cup, though? I’m out.)
I think fans will have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for the concept, myself. The tournament happens early in the year for cultural reasons. The league didn’t want to interfere with All-Star Weekend or the run to the playoffs. Christmas Day is its own event that needs no boosting. That’s pretty much how we got November.
The first month of the season is pretty random, though. Anyone who has watched the Trail Blazers get off to a 10-5 start only to finish with 37 wins—or the inverse, starting 8-10 and winning 48—can testify. I’m not sure this tournament is going to show anything. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t mean anything either.
The incentive is lacking, too. Participants get an extra half a million for winning the thing. Personally, I like what this does for minimum-contract players. It’s not going to register big for anybody else. What does it matter to most fans that a superstar just got a fourth luxury vehicle?
I get that the financial reward is supposed to get players to play harder, but the reward is individual. It has no effect on the team. And if you have to pay players above and beyond their normal contracts to put out a good product, we have a problem that a crystal cup can’t solve.
The league might be able to add more meaning to the tournament by devising a team reward that everybody could get behind. Finding the sweet spot is tricky, though. Too little doesn’t make a difference, but too much imbalances the system in favor of a minor, as yet untested, part.
I toyed with the idea of altering playoffs or play-in position based on the tournament, but that’s far too strong. Cosmetic changes like a team patch are fine, but not enough.
One area that seems open for change, though, is tie-breaking. Playoffs bracket seeds and lottery positions are determined by win-loss records or ping-pong balls. Those mechanisms are well-established and shouldn’t change. But tie-breaking qualifications are basically made up...best guesses that seem fair or expedient. Those are easier to mess with.
The classic example of this was “Division Winner” being a tie-breaking criterion for years. It was an artifact of the days when the league was divided into four divisions. Winning one meant something, often that you were one of the two best teams in the conference. When the league split into six divisions of five teams each, the designation lost clout. Through much of the 2000’s, a team in the same division with San Antonio, Dallas, and Memphis earned its 48 wins much harder than the Kings, Suns, and Clippers. Rewarding the latter and penalizing the former was silly.
Accordingly, the league changed the tiebreaker from winning your division to simply division wins, and only if the tied teams play in the same division. Otherwise division doesn’t matter anymore as a tiebreaker.
Accordingly, I’d suggest that the NBA Cup be factored in as a tie-breaking criterion. Finding the right balance would require experimentation, but I’d suggest this as a starting point:
- The winner of the NBA Cup would have an automatic tie-breaker win for playoffs seeding purposes, usable one in the next three years: the playoffs following the Cup win and the two thereafter. If two teams in the conference finished with equal records, but one of them had won the Cup in the past three years, that Cup-winning team would receive the tie-breaker nod, regardless of other criteria. This would also hold true for purposes of home-court advantage should two NBA Finalists with equal records meet.
- If two teams are tied for draft position but one of them has won the Cup in the last three years, that Cup win breaks the tie instead of the customary coin flip.
- The Cup win counts once, for one of these purposes. It is not perpetual through the three years, nor can it be used for breaking a seeding and draft tie in the same year. Should a Cup-winning playoffs team also tie in the draft order in the same year, the team would choose which benefit it preferred.
- Should two tied teams each hold a Cup win, tie breaking proceeds as normal without the Cup win being invoked or expended.
This gives the tournament a connection to the rest of the year. It also gives the winning team incentive to play for the victory for tangible, organizational reasons instead of just individual dollars and a small PR bump.
The three-year designation is necessary because the likelihood of a team winning the Cup and needing a tiebreaker in the same year is small. Carrying that chip around for a couple seasons gives a nice benefit, just in case, without imbalancing the system.
I suspect that, once the tournament has gotten a shakedown cruise, we’ll see more suggestions like this. For now, we’re going to have to bear with them as see how it goes. I hope it’s great! If not, the cost is low. No harm, no foul.
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