Redesigning The NBA: From The Playoffs To The Draft

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Former Commissioner David Stern never shied away from change. As a matter of fact, he embraced it. In his own words:

You will ultimately be defined by the sum total of your responses to circumstances, situations and events that you probably couldn’t anticipate and indeed probably couldn’t even imagine. So just keep your eyes on the course and be ready to move in different directions depending upon the crises and opportunities with which you are faced.

Stern faced his fair share of crises and opportunities over his 40+ year reign, with most of them not having anything to do with the actual game on the floor, but he did recognize opportunities to improve gameplay by tweaking rules, which affected the direction and style of the game.

  • As the league gained a reputation for physicality over gracefulness, in the late-eighties to mid-nineties, the no-hand check rule came into play allowing guards to get off more open shots and drive into the paint with greater ease.
  • When Charles Barkley began posting up opponents with his large backside for upwards of 15 seconds on route to a move to the hoop, the league put in a five second rule for backdowns, making players pass more often.
  • After the Malice in the Palace, technicals began to be called much quicker to keep players from talking trash which might escalate passion on the floor. Also, the definition of a flagrant foul evolved in an effort to keep hard fouls in check, so we see more now than in the past.

One could argue for or against any one of these and other rules changes Stern oversaw, but one can’t argue against the popularity of the league today vs. 30 years ago.

Adjust. Refocus. Improve. Sell. Profit.

The game has evolved from a high-scoring, yet at times a highly physical, packed in the paint game to an informed game, one that is now played wide open, allowing coaches to properly space the floor and showcase not only player skills, but the intrinsic beauty of the game itself. From guards spinning into the lane, euro-stepping to the rim to three point shots raining down from the unthinkable situation just 10 years-ago—pull up threes on a fast break—the game plays the numbers more than ever.

Advanced analytics inform organizations about player strengths & weaknesses and provide key insight into the game itself; how players on average shoot best in what spots on the floor, whether off screens or two dribbles, why a decent three point shot is better than a good mid-range shot, etc. Analytics provides smart coaches with additional input to structure their sets around their personnel, ball movement, spacing and the long/short game.

Yet for all this progressive thinking applied to the actual game over the past 30 years, the league remains unbelievably conservative when it comes to dealing with the two biggest issues staring them directly in the face.

The Playoffs

One of the two biggest problems the NBA has today is figuring out how to convert the casual fan into a core supporter. As it currently stands, casual NBA fans don’t pay much attention until the playoffs begin, and it’s a completely understandable position. With the large number of regular season games played, the lunacy that 53% of teams make the playoffs anyhow, the recent trend to rest players for the second season and the growing number of teams tanking (more on that later), the two month-long, seven game series format is perfectly digestible for all basketball fans.

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But if there’s a valid gripe about the playoffs, it should be centered on the reality of less than average teams making the tournament. This year, three teams won’t have a .500 record in the east, yet still receive the opportunity to make playoff revenue and through dumb luck, potentially advance to the next round.

So how can the league address the conversion issue staring them in the face without reducing the number of regular season and playoff games (avoiding losing money for both owners and players)? The playoffs conundrum can be simply addressed in the reseeding across conference lines conversation, and I’m all for that as a first step, but that doesn’t move the needle with fans enjoying the product on the floor during the regular season.

Let’s come back to the playoffs in a bit, as there’s an even bigger elephant in the room and they go trunk in trunk.

The Draft

Prior to the 1986 NBA draft, the worst team in the league would get the top pick. It worked for a while, but once the game gained in popularity (read: revenue), it became obvious that less than decent teams were taking advantage of the system by losing on purpose. Finally, Stern made the move to a weighted draft lottery, as the product suffered when teams purposefully produced a bad experience for paying customers.

Fast-forward 30 years. Even though the team with the worse record now only has a 25% chance at the first overall pick, teams are still tanking and doing it publicly. Simply the chance at landing a transformative superstar has teams gutting their franchises to their core and selling the approach to their fan-base as a winning strategy in the current NBA landscape, where being a middling team is the kiss of death for championship desires.

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Who can argue with them?

The DNA of basketball has the ball in the best player’s hands more often than not, so it becomes a star-driven league. Without one or two of the top 10 to 15 players on your roster, the odds are simply stacked against you ever winning a chip. Sure, superstars can be acquired via free agency or trades, but those cases are rare, as a middling team needs assets to trade (not many have a good player, young talent and a few good picks to land a superstar) or cap space, a preferable market and a decent core to drawn in a top flight free agent.

If you want to build a team with a chance to win it all, the draft needs to be at the core of your strategy. That said, it’s bad for the game, for the product, for the bottom-line to incentivize teams to lose—not to mention, it’s the absolute wrong strategy for the league when trying to convert casual fans into core NBA supporters. Bad basketball and losing, no matter how it’s sold to a casual fan of the game, isn’t going to help win them over, but that’s the current incentivization model the NBA has created for teams to get better.

Commissioner Adam Silver: Let’s change all this today.

Incentive To Win AND Build For The Future
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What if the NBA system was such that trying your best—from the players on the court to the coaching staff to the GM to the owner—would put an organization in a position to not only have a shot at the playoffs, but a shot at the top draft pick?

Yesterday, on Max and Marcellus, the guys came up with an interesting approach to stop tanking and add more excitement to the end of the season. Their idea was as follows:

  • Take the eight teams with the worst records at the end of the year and put them in a March Madness-like tournament
  • Seeding would be based on the number of wins a team has AFTER they are eliminated from the playoffs (so this year, because the Knicks were eliminated first, they’d have a head start on collecting wins and having home court advantage for the eight team tourney)
  • The winner of the tournament gets the first pick in the draft, with the remaining teams’ draft order based on tourney results and seeding
  • The 9-14 teams would then fall in line with draft seedings by their record.

Brilliant on a number of levels:

  1. There will always be the cellar dwellers of the league, but if you’re forced to win games once eliminated from the playoff race in order to get the top pick, then organizational tanking (see Sam Hinkie) simply isn’t an option. You have to remain competitive.
  2. This makes the regular season much more watchable and stops lesser teams from waiving good, veteran players, only to have top five teams scoop them up for the playoff push. 15 win seasons will be an absolute anomaly and fans of those teams will have more to root for.
  3. An added bonus: NBA July Madness! Imagine a bizarro eight-team tourney, held after the championship series, where the number one seed, which may be the worst team (though to a much lesser degree), must battle to win the first pick in the draft! I’d watch those games with popcorn and brew; it would be so much more of a TV event than the draft lottery.

It’s a pretty great fix on its own, but as my man John Witherspoon famously implored:

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…but you don’t stop there. see, you got to keep going…

Why not take this opportunity to address the issues of the current playoff system as well? There’s no way that the 16 team format will be reduced—again, too much money is on the table—but along with reseeding, why not have a play-in tournament to have lesser teams prove their playoff worth? Here’s the idea:

  • Reward the best in the league by giving an automatic qualification to the top eight teams, regardless of conference. That would mean as of today, Golden State, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, Portland, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Cleveland would get in.
  • Place the remaining 14 teams—9 through 22 by record, across conference—into another single elimination tourney. That would mean as of today, Dallas, Toronto, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Washington, New Orleans, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Miami, Boston, Utah, Charlotte and Indiana would have the privilege to fight for the 9-16 seeds in the NBA playoffs. The six teams that do the worst (based on losing and seeding) end up with the 9-14 draft order.

Move this direction and competition gets even tougher during the regular season.

On one front, the best teams will push to earn a guaranteed spot and rest before the playoffs begin, and on the other, the worst teams will keep their talent in order to fight for the top pick in the draft. Most importantly, though, this removes the vast gap between the best and worst teams, ensuring that every team is giving maximum effort for their paying fans who are spending big bucks to come out to games.

Adding two, week-long, single elimination tournaments to the TNT/ESPN schedule and interest from college and casual fans will skyrocket, generating new revenue streams and future growth. It’s a solid business move for both teams and the league alike.

Change the incentive and change the results.

If players are working into mid-July, back-to-back games would need to become a thing of the past. I’m pretty sure this would have to be addressed in the next CBA, but as long as players see a cut of the action, and are agreeable to the timing, I can’t imagine why they’d be against it.

It’s logical, compelling, dramatic and quite simply…fantastic!