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The Future of the NBA Lies Overseas

The NBA is thinking internationally to answer major questions about the regular season and who will take over for LeBron as the face(s) of the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dallas fans had to make a difficult choice on Sunday. At 3:25 p.m. local time, Luka Doncic was in the middle of an MVP-caliber performance in the Mavericks’ road game against the Rockets; at the same time, the Cowboys were set to kick off against the Patriots. The Dallas/Fort Worth market, then, faced an existential local sports question: If the Cowboys are in a playoff race, does a masterpiece by the best young player in basketball make a sound?

Most fans probably picked the Cowboys—their 13-9 loss to New England tied for the highest-rated NFL game since 2007, and was the most-watched TV program this year since the Academy Awards in February. But those that chose the NFL missed another dominant game from Luka Legend. Doncic had one of his best outings to date and put up 41 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds to lead the Mavs to a 14-point win, their 11th of the young season. The Cowboys may be the more popular team in Dallas, yet Luka’s ability to whip the ball around the floor and manipulate defenders using fakes and hesitations is the greatest show in town.

But Texans aren’t the only fan group the NBA is looking to tap into. Across the Atlantic, Mavs-Rockets was playing in prime time. In England, the game began at 8:30 p.m., and in Doncic’s home country of Slovenia, it tipped at 9:30 p.m. In total, the NBA scheduled a record 48 games on Saturday and Sunday that will air in prime time in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

There are more teams capable of winning the NBA title than there have been in years, yet the NBA itself is at an inflection point. LeBron James looks revitalized this season with five triple-doubles and counting, but he’ll be 35 in a month; his decline or retirement is inevitable in the 2020s. And when he decides to hang it up, a large portion of the viewership could leave with him. TV ratings are down again this season, for a variety of reasons: TNT front-loaded its schedule with Pelicans games that Zion Williamson wasn’t able to participate in; the Warriors’ dynasty is no more; the threat posed by cable-cutters and streamers; and so on. But LeBron’s shift to a later time zone alone caused a noticeable dip in ratings to the point that the league reduced the number of national games with 10:30 p.m. ET start times this season. James’s retirement, whenever it comes, already looms large.

The NBA, however, is proactive about the future. Last week, ESPN reported discussions of major changes to the regular reason, including two different in-season tournaments that bear a striking resemblance to those used in European soccer. And the NBA has recently begun to put its weight behind rising stars like Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, both of whom cut their teeth in European leagues. In both instances, the NBA is looking overseas for solutions to mounting questions about its future.

The reported proposal, which is being discussed by the NBA and the players association, would include major changes: If approved, the proposal will install a 30-team tournament to take place after Thanksgiving, introduce a postseason play-in tournament, reseed the four conference finalists, and shorten the regular season to 78 games. The concepts might seem radical to NBA fans, but they look quite familiar to fans of European basketball and soccer.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has long been a proponent of a tournament modeled after European basketball and soccer leagues, such as England’s storied FA Cup. The NBA believes giving players and teams something to win in-season would increase interest among fans, break up the monotony of the long regular season, and create significant revenue opportunities, multiple league sources say. ESPN reported that “lucrative television and sponsorship revenue” could assure that revenue for teams and players would stay the same, and eventually get better, despite a shortened regular-season schedule.

It remains to be seen how players will be incentivized to compete in an in-season tournament. Extra compensation for players and coaches could be involved, according to ESPN. To incentivize teams, league sources told me the NBA could make each victory in the single-elimination knockout tournament worth double toward the regular-season standings, or it could eliminate the win-loss system and install a points system similar to the ones used by EPL, the World Cup, and the NHL. But it’s unclear what the incentives will be in the final proposal; virtually any idea you can imagine has been discussed and debated during meetings. Clarity will come soon—there are only five months to go before the Board of Governors meeting in April, when votes will take place. Sources confirmed a high-ranking source who told ESPN that there’s been “no real pushback” from teams and players for the tournament. But there’s certainly concern about whether it could be a flop financially or struggle to draw ratings. Still, multiple front-office executives have gone as far as to say change is inevitable—it’s just a matter of the form it takes.

Two hurdles that could prevent any of this from happening are broadcasting rights and arena scheduling. League sources expect that in-season tournament games will run simultaneously on national and local stations, and in-season tournament knockout rounds could take place at a neutral site, such as Las Vegas, where the league hosts summer league and the G League Showcase. The NBA could also change the location of the tournament each year, like the NCAA does for March Madness or the NFL does with the Super Bowl. “The in-season tournament can be the way to bring competitive basketball to cities without a team like Seattle or Mexico City or even London,” one front-office executive said. The NBA already plays annual regular-season games in Mexico and Europe; additionally, in January 2020, the Bucks will face the Hornets in Paris. Without a neutral site, scheduling would become a nightmarish task. Arenas are already frustrated with having to hold so many open dates for potential postseason games; adding two tournaments would require them to have even more open dates, league sources said.

But the pros could outweigh the cons if ratings and fan interest meets or exceeds league expectations. A play-in tournament would give teams with bad injury luck a chance to save their season, and it could keep more fans interested for longer; teams that otherwise wouldn’t reach the 8-seed would now have a chance to make the play-in tournament, which would include the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds from each conference. Multiple league sources pointed to the 2018 regular-season finale between the Nuggets and Timberwolves as an example of the kind of intensity the NBA would like to replicate. On the last day of the regular season, Denver and Minnesota faced off in what was effectively an elimination game for the 8-seed in the Western Conference. That game was the first final-day play-in game in 21 years—and it wasn’t even on national television. With a play-in tournament, the NBA would be guaranteed win-or-go-home games on national television every April.

The key is creating more interest from October to April, and then from April through June—which can also feel like a slog, with playoff sweeps in the early rounds and long stretches without a game. The NBA is also considered reseeding the final four teams in the conference finals based on regular-season records without regard to conference, per ESPN. The best regular-season record isn’t always reflective of the best teams, but it would increase the probability of cross-conference playoff series that otherwise would happen only in the Finals—such as Luka versus Giannis.

On November 1, just over three weeks before the Mavericks went head-to-head with the Cowboys, Doncic faced off against basketball’s most popular star. In a thrilling overtime matchup with the Lakers on national TV, Luka had 31 points, 15 assists, and 13 rebounds, which made him the youngest player to post 30-15-10. But LeBron one-upped him—the Lakers got the win and James finished with 39 points, 16 assists, and 12 rebounds, which made him the oldest player in NBA history to record a 30-15-10 triple-double. It was the first time in NBA history that opposing players recorded 30-15-10 triple-doubles in the same game.

Nights like this one are becoming a norm for Doncic, who, at 20 years old and in his second NBA season, has emerged as an MVP candidate by averaging 30.6 points with elite scoring efficiency, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.8 assists for the resurgent Mavs (11-5). With Steph Curry and Kevin Durant sidelined by injury, I would rank Doncic as the fifth-best active player in the game.

Luka doesn’t have LeBron’s athleticism, but if he does take LeBron’s place at the forefront of the league, it’s because he has the same DNA. Doncic’s cerebral game blends footwork, feel, and vision to generate offense against any defense, and he delivers passes with LeBronian velocity and precision. Doncic told me in October that LeBron was his idol. “He’s still my idol now,” he said. After Doncic’s triple-double performance against the Lakers, James returned the admiration.

“You never know who you can inspire along your path. You hope that you can inspire the next generation. By playing the game the right way, always getting my teammates involved and playing for the purity of the game, I was able to inspire a kid that wasn’t even in America. That’s pretty special,” LeBron told ESPN after the Lakers beat the Mavs. “His ability to make plays not only for himself but for his teammates, as a rebounder, and just playing for the pure love of the game, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

In their first matchup last season, Luka waited outside of the Lakers locker room after the game for LeBron’s signed jersey. Now Luka has earned LeBron’s respect. Doncic will get another chance to beat James on December 1, another afternoon matinee that fans in Europe can watch live without needing to ruin their sleep schedules. Then on December 16, Doncic will face off against the other the other international player taking the league by storm: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis, who is 24 years old, is also a reimagining of LeBron, but in a different way. Antetokounmpo shares James’s freakish athleticism in a bigger, longer body, and as a result, he can execute the same chase-down blocks and rim-rattling dunks. The reigning MVP has been even better in his encore, averaging more points (31.1), rebounds (13.9), assists (6.4), and steals (1.6) than he did last season while vying to become just the 12th player ever to win back-to-back MVPs. On Monday, Giannis dropped a season-high 50 points on the Jazz, who had the league’s best defense going into the game, in what was one of the best two-way performances of the season. Giannis won MVP and placed second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, yet somehow he’s improved again. I’d rank him as the third-best active player.

To put their tremendous starts in context, consider this: Luka has a box plus-minus of 14.2 and Giannis has a box plus-minus of 13.1; only four other players in history have posted a box plus-minus over 12—Michael Jordan twice in 1987-88 and 1988-89, LeBron James twice in 2008-09 and 2009-10, Steph Curry in 2015-16, and Russell Westbrook in 2016-17. Each player won MVP, except for Jordan in 1988-89, who finished second behind Magic Johnson. Luka and Giannis, it’s fair to say, are off to historic starts.

In the 1980s, Magic and Larry Bird helped save the league and grow the game nationally, then Jordan took it global in the 1990s before LeBron took the reins in the 2000s through today. The NBA looks a lot different now: The amount of overseas-born players has tripled in the past two decades, from 36 total in 1999-00 to 108 in 2019-20. Each team now has an average of 3.6 international players. Not only has the quantity increased, so has the quality. The face of the NBA has always been an American, but in the 2020s, it could be Luka, the quiet Slovenian with a killer mentality, or Giannis, a Greek native born to Nigerian immigrants with a big personality to match his big game. Could Luka versus Giannis even become the international version of Bird versus Magic?

In a post-LeBron world, the NBA would obviously benefit if a rivalry brews between Luka and Giannis. Both are MVP contenders. Both lead playoff teams that should keep getting better. Both sharpened their skills overseas. And both are carrying on LeBron’s legacy with their blend of size and an unselfish, team-first style. The NBA is certainly investing in them: In the U.S., the Bucks have the sixth-most national TV games and the Mavs have the 12th most. The Mavs have eight of the aforementioned Saturday and Sunday showcase games that start in prime time in Europe, tied for the most in the NBA with the Rockets and Clippers. The Bucks have four, which is tied for the seventh most.

LeBron’s twilight is coming and the NBA is going to have to turn to the next generation, one that is being led by two international players. With NBA rosters starting to look more international, it makes sense that now the NBA season will, too. The hope is that the addition of in-season and postseason play-in tournaments, in conjunction with the increased quantity and quality of international players, will allow the league to maintain and increase its popularity in the United States and abroad. It’s on the league office to pull the right strings to best present the sport. The game itself will be in good hands after LeBron because of players like Luka and Giannis he helped shape. These days, basketball is indeed without borders.