There’s always room for improvement. So even though the NBA is now a 12-month league that we can’t look away from, we here at The Ringer have a few humble suggestions to make it even greater. Welcome to League Hack Week—the first of four weeklong series leading up to opening night of the 2017-18 NBA season.
How can the NBA improve? Over the past week, I’ve chatted with numerous people inside the game—league executives, agents, managers, coaches—to get feedback on how to make a great league even greater. Ideas ranged from wild revisions to the playoff structure, changes to contracts, and overhauling the draft.
Listed below are the seven best ideas that came up through conversation over this past week. All ideas were anonymously shared and paraphrased in my words.
Playoff Wild-Card Play-in Tournament
The Idea (Via a Player Manager): Allow teams who had no chance of making the playoffs to get in, NCAA tournament–style. It could be a one-game playoff, like MLB uses with its wild-card matchup, or it could be more like March Madness, with all four lower seeds up for grabs in one-game tournaments. The hope is it would add excitement to the bottom half of the league. The play-in game, and the potential extra playoff games should that team advance, would add more revenue, too.
My Take: This idea brought to mind what Adam Silver said at the Board of Governors press conference in 2014. “[What] the competition committee talked about and seemed excited about is potentially some sort of midseason tournament,” Silver said. “We’re looking at other opportunities in the league to create excitement. As one of our general managers said at the meeting, ‘There’s very few things that you can win in the NBA.’” Silver added that the NBA has only the Finals, while European basketball and soccer leagues have multiple tournaments and cups played over the calendar year. Silver suggested Las Vegas as a potential neutral location for its own tourney.
The struggle is giving a tournament meaning; otherwise it could just be a cute exhibition game. I’m not convinced money alone is enough of an incentive, so why not add a tournament in order to determine the playoff seeds? For example, seeds one through seven could all get a bye week to strategize and get healthy for the games to come. Meanwhile, seeds eight through 12 (or even eight through 15) in each conference battle in Vegas for the final playoff spot.
There’d be problems to sort out, like how lottery odds would be impacted, if at all. If the Mavericks won the West bracket, would they lose out on their lottery pick? Or would odds stay the same? Or maybe lottery odds could somehow be tied to performance in the tournament. For each game a team won, it could receive some percentage increase in the draft lottery, and for each loss, a decrease. Can you imagine how fun it’d be for the Suns, winners of 24 games last season, to win a few games to get into the playoffs and increase their lotto odds? What if the solution to tanking is a tournament to get into the playoffs? I’m intrigued.
Eliminate Two-Way Contracts
The Idea (Via a Player Agent): Two-way contracts are bad for both players and teams. Players on two-way contracts are trapped making $75,000 guaranteed if they don’t get called up and about $275,000 if they’re on an NBA roster for up to 45 days. But there’s no guarantee they get that chance because it’s only the one team that can call them up, whereas players not on two-way contracts can be signed to 10-day contracts or NBA contracts by all 30 teams.
Teams will realize how good it was to be able to call up anyone they wanted. Now front offices are restricted from signing the best G-League players, since they’re already all locked up on two-way contracts. Each team gets a pair of two-way contracts, so assuming all 60 are used and distributed evenly across all positions, the team in need of a point guard would have to pluck the 13th-best point guard from the G-League. And even if they have a point guard on a two-way, he might be only the 10th-best point guard in the G-League. Teams should be able to access the best available talent outside the league if they need to, and those players should be able to have all options on the table.
My Take: This is the most compelling, thoughtful argument I received. I agree with the agent, especially regarding his thoughts on the player’s side. I’d argue that two-way contracts are a gift from the basketball gods, if you’re a smart team. I’ve chatted with team executives who aren’t worried about the G-League pool being diluted. Many of them love it. I had one exec tell me recently that he’s disappointed that the new collective bargaining agreement didn’t add more two-way deals. Executives are betting on their team being the one to find the best talent.
With that said, it will be interesting if a team is in desperate need of a player at a certain position. A better compromise might’ve been to give players on two-way contracts an opt-out if, and only if, they were offered a guaranteed NBA contract. Nonetheless, two-way contracts have just been instituted, and already there have been gripes from agents.
Remove Live-Ball Timeouts
The Idea (Via an NBA Video Coordinator): Eliminating live-ball timeouts would add a more exciting and strategic element to the game. It sucks when the ends of games drag along slowly. There’s a play, then a timeout and a commercial, then both teams substitute. Sometimes there’s another timeout and commercial. Basketball should maintain momentum throughout the game.
My Take: A good sideline-out-of-bounds gets me feeling like the Shaq vs. Cat meme, but nothing beats the up-and-down action of an NBA game. Remember how thrilling this was to watch?
Exhilarating. It was the right call. Iso Joe Johnson feasted on the thinner Jamal Crawford. Maybe you’re not a fan of the isolation play. Fine. But in a world where coaches know they can’t call a timeout after a miss, maybe they’re calling up a play in the huddle for after a missed basket.
At the least, it’d be nice to see the NBA adopt what the G-League uses, called a “reset timeout.” In the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, the team can advance the ball to the frontcourt and make substitutions. It’s like a timeout, just without the huddle and the commercials.
Make the Dunk Contest the All-Star Game Warm-up
The Idea (Via an NBA Trainer): The dunk contest should be the pregame warm-up to the NBA All-Star Game. It could encourage all the best players to show out.
My Take: This is smart. Players dunk all the time in warm-ups anyway. Why not make an event out of it? Not much would need to change. On Friday, we’d still have the All-Star Celebrity Game and the Rising Stars Challenge. On Saturday, the 3-point contest would become the final event. Moving the dunk contest to Sunday could even kick-start the night in a way that jolts life into the seemingly stale All-Star Game. The league is all about entertainment, after all.
Add MLB-Style Regular-Season Series
The Idea (Via a Front-Office Executive): A Major League Baseball–style regular-season series of two, three, or four games would add more team-specific strategic preparation, and thus (hopefully) more interesting games, while also making rivalries more of a thing. It would also cut down on travel time even if series are kept within the division.
My Take: Home-and-home games are a cool little quirk over the course of a long schedule. I’m not sure I’d be interested in seeing two teams playing four games in a row, but I get the appeal. It’d be cool to see a team battle its division or conference rival in a pivotal series smack in the middle of the season. Imagine if the Celtics and Cavaliers played three consecutive games in March, in the heat of a playoff race, for the no. 1 seed? The flaw is that if any players are hurt over the course of the season series, we’ll likely miss out on some marquee matchups. Nonetheless, I’d be interested in seeing the NBA experiment with it on a limited basis.
Put Revenue-Sharing Penalties on Repeat Tankers
The Idea (Via a Scouting Consultant): Tanking should be a viable strategy because it’s one of the only ways to draft a star and make your team attractive to star free agents. But it’s way too easy to take advantage of the system. It should come at a cost. If the NBA wants to restrict tanking, it can put revenue-sharing penalties on repeat tankers, similar to the current mechanism that penalizes teams for spending over the luxury-tax line.
For example, if a team finishes with a bottom-five record three times in any five-year period, it either loses its revenue share or needs to pay more. Teams too inept to get out of the lottery would lose money instead of being able to keep payroll lean—large and small markets alike. This could also pressure bad owners to sell; if they can’t put together a competent management team, it would be too expensive to hang around just for the valuation. The NBA should tie incentives into being more strategic with cap management and just leave the lottery odds alone.
My Take: Over the past five seasons, the Magic, Lakers, Sixers, and Suns all finished with a bottom-five record at least three times. That means, under the terms of the consultant’s suggestion, they would all be penalized by the league. All those teams would’ve made different decisions along the way, but they wouldn’t have necessarily resulted in better performances.
Take the Magic, for example. In 2016-17, they finished with a bottom-five record for the fourth time in the past five seasons. But they didn’t want to be bad. They tossed a lot of money at Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, and D.J. Augustin. They re-signed Evan Fournier to a long-term deal. They tried to be average—and still stunk. Teams that far in the hole aren’t trying to stay that way, and I’m not convinced applying financial sanctions would make the situation any better. If more teams start handing out bad contracts with the intentions of scraping out from the bottom, it could result in more hopelessness. Is this the league we want?
Having said that, I think it’s an interesting concept. The tax works to deter teams from overspending, so logically it could prevent teams from tanking. Maybe limiting the sanctions to the bottom three rather than the bottom five is enough? Under those circumstances, only the Sixers would be penalized, which seems a lot more reasonable. It still wouldn’t change the fact the Nets would be at risk for a penalty after this season, even though they haven't been tanking (and don’t even have their picks). The idea is strong, but we would need to refine the criteria to perfect it.
Eliminate the Age Limit for the Draft
The Idea (Via a Former Front-Office Executive): Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Kevin Garnett were all shining examples of the preps-to-pros athletes era, but they were the exceptions to the rule. The NBA wasn’t prepared for high schoolers, both from a support system in the front office to a development program, if a player stumbled. The league is ready now.
There’s better technology and sports science. Each team employs not just assistant coaches but multiple player-development assistants. Nearly all teams have G-League squads. Front offices have support teams off the court. All of these are systems in place to support an 18-year-old prospect making the jump to the NBA.
My Take: Amen. The age limit has its perks, chief among them that players can experience high-pressure college environments and teams get an additional year or more of seeing the prospect as he matures. But I’d prefer the higher variance of a draft that includes high schoolers. Teams with a scouting or statistical-projection advantage could gain an edge over the competition. Never mind that players should have the right to choose. As the former executive said, a phenom like 17-year-old R.J. Barrett may be further along than many 19-year-old college freshmen.