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NBA in talks to add in-season tournament, re-seed conference Finals, shorten season

NBA commissioner Adam Silver

Commissioner of the NBA Adam Silver arrives for the 2019 NBA Awards at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by LISA O’CONNOR / AFP) (Photo credit should read LISA O’CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

For more than a year now, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said that the league’s upcoming 75th season — the 2021-22 season — would be the perfect time to make radical changes to the league’s schedule, trying new things to generate interest to counter the drop off in people watching traditional broadcasts.

Those changes may become a reality.

The league is in negotiations with the players’ union and broadcast partners to make sweeping changes that season. The idea would be to shorten the regular season by a handful of games (still playing at least 78), to add a mid-season tournament for every team, re-seeding the final four teams in playoffs regardless of conference, and more.

Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN have the details.

The NBA is engaged in serious discussions with the National Basketball Players Association and broadcast partners on sweeping and dramatic changes to the league calendar that include a reseeding of the four conference finalists, a 30 team in-season tournament, and a postseason play-in, league sources told ESPN.

These scenarios include the shortening of the regular season to a minimum of 78 games, league sources said.

Discussions are progressing with hopes of bringing a vote to the April meeting of the league’s Board of Governors that would introduce some -- if not all of these proposals -- into the NBA’s 75th anniversary season of 2021-2022, league sources said. The NBA still has work to do coordinating with constituents on the myriad of implications involving the proposed changes.

Getting all the parties involved to agree to this is a Herculean task. Silver is more of a consensus builder than a commissioner who wields his power like a dictator, but he’s going to need to twist some arms to make this happen. The argument to the teams is that while they lose a couple of regular season home games and that gate revenue (plus local broadcast revenue), the extra money from a mid-season tournament broadcast package would more than make up for that.

Let’s take a look at each proposal.

Re-seeding Conference Finals

There has been a concern in recent years that with the depth of the West the league’s two best teams meet in the conference finals, sucking the drama out of a Finals where the outcome feels obvious. Re-seeding the final four teams left in the playoffs could lead to more dramatic matchups in both rounds.
For example, if this had been done last season, the conference Finals would have been the Bucks vs. Trail Blazers and Warriors vs. Raptors (a scenario that probably sends the Milwaukee into the Finals and has Toronto taking on a healthier Golden State team). Two seasons ago it would have meant the 65-win Rockets take on LeBron James’ Cavaliers and Golden State vs. upstart Boston in the conference finals, potentially setting up the Rockets/Warriors as the NBA Finals (those were the two best teams that season). In both cases, the NBA gets what it wants, which is its biggest name players on its biggest stage in meaningful games.

While it breaks with tradition, it doesn’t change much in terms of the scheduling for the league or the broadcast partners. It’s possible some owners in the East object if they see their chances of reaching the Finals decreasing.

Mid-Season NBA Tournament

Adam Silver has been enamored with the European soccer model, where teams play for multiple titles in a season. While there is the regular season, there are also multiple cups and other championships — for example, the FA Cup in England — that gives fans something else to root and hope for. A team stuck in the middle of the Premiere League table could make a run deep into the FA Cup, giving those fans hope and a reason to tune in.

Silver also has liked the idea of being able to sell this tournament as a separate broadcast package — remember FOX and CBS had serious interest in broadcasting NBA games during the last negotiations — that generates more revenue for the league.

This likely would run early in the season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas (ideally adding interest during a part of the year when fans are more focused on the NFL and college bowl games).

Structurally, this would start with some already-scheduled regular-season division games also counting as part of a round-robin group stage (putting a double meaning on those games and upping the importance of what could otherwise be a bland regular season night). From there, the top teams would advance to a knock-out stage event (which would have the separate broadcast rights).

To motivate teams and players, there is going to have to be a significant financial incentive for them. This new tournament is not baked into the culture of the sport or the psyche of fans the way it is in European soccer. It’s going to take a long time for this to grow, it can’t be a one-year thing.

Playoff play-in games

This is another proposal that has bounced around the NBA in various forms for a few years. The idea is to take seeds 7, 8, 9, and 10 and put them in a special tournament. The 7 seed would host the 8 seed in one play-in game, with the winner automatically advancing to the playoffs. The 9 seed would host the 10 seed, and the loser of that game is out. Then the loser of the 7/8 game and the winner of the 9/10 game would meet in a one-game, winner gets into the playoffs contest.
Last season this would have meant in the East Orlando would have played Detroit, with the loser of that game facing the winner of a Charlotte/Miami matchup for the right to continue on in the playoffs. In the West, the Clippers and Spurs would have been the 7/8 matchup, with the loser having to face the winner of a Kings/Lakers game to be in the traditional part of the postseason.

The league’s goal here is obvious: Get more fan bases interested in the games late in the season and not looking ahead to the draft and free agency. (There has been a legitimate concern in at the top of the league about the focus on transactions by fans and not the games themselves, and what that would mean for the future of the sport.)

Shortening the NBA season

That’s not happening here in any meaningful way. This will not address concerns about load management or injury concerns from players.

The regular season would become 78 games, although teams that advance to the finals of the mid-season tournament would still play about 81 games. It is possible that if a 9/10 seed team also made a run to the finals of the mid-season tournament they could play 83 games; however, that would be a very rare occurrence.