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What Should the NBA Do to Fix Its Schedule?

Shorten the regular season, sure, but let’s add some tournaments too

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported something that’s been rumored for some time: The NBA is considering cutting its schedule down from 82 games and adding a midseason cup of some sort. It would be the most dramatic shift to the NBA’s schedule by far. No Big Four North American sports league has even altered its number of games since the NFL went from 14 games to 16 games in 1978.

Introducing a midseason tournament would be wild. While many international soccer leagues feature multiple competitions in the same season, I suspect merely having a separate tournament in the middle of the NBA season wouldn’t go so well. English soccer teams play in the Premier League, but also play in a single-elimination tournament called the FA Cup, featuring teams from all levels of English soccer. It’s definitely more prestigious to win the Premier League, but it’s fun for whichever team goes on a run and wins the FA Cup. That’s a system replicated throughout international soccer (Spain has La Liga and the Copa del Rey; France has Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France; our MLS has its own playoffs as well as the U.S. Open Cup). But the FA Cup and other in-season soccer cups throughout the world are long-standing traditions, and their place in their nation’s trophy hierarchy are well understood. It’d be tougher to convince NBA fans and players to suddenly care about winning a second-tier trophy in February.

So perhaps it’s time to get creative: I’ve got an idea about how to make the NBA season better—and several ideas on how to make the midyear break enjoyable.

Number of Games

I’m not one to typically complain about there being more sports, but 82 is not the right amount of games for the NBA. For starters, 82 games is completely arbitrary. The NBA settled on the number when it expanded to 12 teams in 1967 and hasn’t budged as the league has grown to 30 (and developed into a thrilling international phenomenon instead of a part-time job for 6-foot-6 guys who could make layups). My guess is that at some point, someone was like, “Our schedule should be half a baseball season,” which would be 81 games, but that sounded weird, so they added a game.

Being arbitrary in and of itself isn’t a problem, but it often seems like players are hitting a wall by the end of the postseason, exactly when they would ideally be rounding into peak performance. And watching Kevin Durant’s Achilles and Klay Thompson’s ACL give out in the Warriors’ 103rd and 104th games of the year, respectively, seems like a reasonable catalyst for change.

So how many games should the schedule be? Easy: 58. That gives each of the 30 teams one home game and one road game against all 29 opponents. Every owner gets to have LeBron James play in their arena; nobody gets to complain about imbalanced schedules. Competitively, it’s perfect.

We’re also going to cut down on the postseason a little bit. The first round should be best-of-five series instead of best-of-seven. Until 2003, the first round was a best-of-five round, and in reality, it basically still is: The first round this year featured no upsets, and no team has lost a series after being the first to win three games since 2016.

There should also be a skunk rule, ending any series in any non-Finals round once a team goes up 3-0. Of the literal hundreds of series to have featured a 3-0 lead in NBA history, none has ever been blown, and only three teams have even forced a Game 7. Playing games 4 through 6 in a series where one team leads 3-0 is a waste of everybody’s time and energy.

The problem is that the NBA generates its money from basketball games, and we just got rid of 29.3 percent of the league’s regular-season schedule, and 12 percent of last year’s postseason. That’s fewer games to sell tickets to, fewer games to broadcast on Fox Sports Whatever State You Live In, and fewer marquee matchups for ESPN and TNT. But hey, you clicked on this link wanting to hear about the perfect season. Fifty-eight games is the perfect season length, and in our dream world, we don’t have to worry about the owners’ pockets.

However, I do think that the perfect NBA season would feature at least two additional tournaments sprinkled throughout the season—one midseason event simply for a change of pace; another to help determine the NBA playoff picture and help eliminate tanking. And it just so happens that this would help alleviate some of the financial shortfall while also giving teams with their eyes on the Finals an opportunity to rest their stars in the middle of the regular season. Plus, these events would provide more product, and I suspect a midseason event that lasts 15 games would generate more fan interest (and revenue) than 15 of the random regular-season games we just eliminated.

The Midseason Tournaments

Each team would play every other team in the league in the first half of the season, running from October to mid-January. Then, there would be three weeks set aside for the midseason tournament, which wouldn’t count toward the NBA standings and wouldn’t necessarily keep all players occupied for all three weeks. All-Star Weekend would be the final event of the break, and then we’d get back to the final 29 games of the season.

However, I don’t think fans of any team would get hyped about just winning the 2020 Adam Silver Invitational. That’s why I’m proposing a quadrennial rotation of four different styles of midseason tournament, which would keep things fresh. Here are four proposals for in-season tournaments that the league probably couldn’t pull off year after year, but would generate buzz if sprinkled in every once in a while:

The Mini World Cup

Are you excited for September’s FIBA World Cup? No? Well, neither are the players. After the initial wave of excitement created after pros were first allowed to compete internationally in 1992, and a reinvigoration in international play after a half-assed 2004 United States Olympic team won only bronze, international basketball has lost most of its luster again. Even at the Olympics, Team USA can barely put together a starting lineup of A-listers, and the last World Cup team in 2014 literally featured Mason Plumlee.

Which is why the NBA should institute its own international competition halfway through the season. It would be a lot easier to get top talent to participate for two weeks in February without leaving the United States than by getting them to cut short their summers by three weeks to travel overseas.

This is the one time the NBA actually needs to adopt an idea from baseball and hockey. Since the Summer Olympics happen during the MLB season and the Winter Olympics and IIHF World Championship happen during the NHL season, both MLB and the NHL have held their own international competitions, the World Baseball Classic and the World Cup of Hockey. Not only does this help foster the global growth every sports league seeks, it keeps the money from international play in the league’s pocket instead of letting some international governing body take a cut.

The one complication is that right now, only Australia and Canada have enough NBA players to create full rosters. France had 10 players in the NBA in 2018-19, Spain had eight, Croatia had six, and no other country had more than five. To make this work, a February Basketball World Cup would have to rely on adding players under contract overseas (seems complicated!) or lumping players from varied countries together under continental banners like Team Europe or Team Africa. (The NHL did it for its World Cup.) That could be fun, though—foreign players do seem to have continental pride, and Team Europe would probably have a better chance of taking down Team USA than any single country. If the league could mandate participation from top talent, the games would actually be pretty exciting.

We’d play a round robin between the six-or-so countries/continents that could rustle up a roster, and then hold a championship game between the two teams with the best records. This would add 10 to 20 high-value games back to the schedule.

The Cash Cup

British soccer has three annual competitions—the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the Carabao Cup. Carabao is not some British soccer term—every few years, the English Football League renames its league cup after whichever sponsor is willing to pay a top price to have the third-biggest prize in English football named after them. (You get to redesign the logo too!) Carabao reportedly pays about $8 million annually for the right.

The NBA would jack up the price a bit. Somebody will need to pay at least $17 million to sponsor the wildest mini game in NBA history, the Cash Cup, suggested and named by Jason Concepcion.

Why $17 million? Because every player on the winning roster (including the guys on two-way contracts) is going to get a million dollars for winning. The sponsor isn’t just paying for the right to name the event’s prize after itself—the money they pay is the prize. The $17 million will be stored in 17 courtside briefcases prominently branded with the sponsor’s logo. Everybody will know that Gatorade or Nike or MeUndies is giving that money to the players, who will vigorously celebrate their win while frolicking in cash near the company’s logo.

This is already kind of the gist of college basketball’s actual best postseason tournament, the Dos Equis 3x3U, which happens to be hosted by The Ringer’s own Mark Titus and Tate Frazier.

The tournament would be single-elimination, and there’d be no bonuses for second. Hold the Final Four in Vegas. (Honestly, Las Vegas should sponsor the damn thing.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual cost of sponsoring the event were more than $17 million, but again: For me, the thrill would be watching NBA players playing for direct cash. Somebody else figure out how the money works.

The Divisional Break

I’m not a big baseball fan, but I think I could name all five teams in each MLB division. Every baseball fan knows this, because the winner of each division gets one of six guaranteed postseason spots. Same goes for the NFL’s eight divisions.

But even hardcore NBA fans can struggle with running down the rosters of the NBA’s six divisions. They just don’t matter as much, since teams don’t play their divisional “rivals” too often (you get four matchups against in-division opponents, and either four or three against teams in the same conference but not your division) and division winners never qualify for the postseason solely through their divisional crown.

So here’s a solution to add back some lost revenue and make the season more interesting for all 30 teams: For three weeks, each team will play a home-and-home against each of the other four teams in their division. These games won’t count in the regular-season standings, but whoever has the best record in those games (or, in case of a tie, the best point differential) will be the division winner. And the division winner gets an automatic playoff berth and home-court advantage in one of those best-of-five first-round playoff series, regardless of their total record. (After the first round, we’d go back to seeding entirely based on regular-season record.)

The Divisional Break would serve a few purposes: It would make the season more interesting for all 30 teams, and foster legitimate in-division rivalries. Plus, we’re adding back some of the games lost when we cut the number of games from 82 to 58 in the first place. Now, each team still plays four games against each of its divisional opponents, just like they currently do. But the two games you play during the Divisional Break have significantly higher stakes than the two regular-season games. This would make up for only eight of the lost games per team, but those games would be much more valuable.

The 3-on-3 Showdown

I’m semi-obsessed with the upcoming three-on-three competition at the Olympics. Unfortunately, that event seems unlikely to feature NBA players. It might not even have actual professional basketball players! So again, the NBA should try to make a better version of that FIBA event.

The NBA’s three-on-three tournament would work like this: The games are played in a half court, by 2s and 3s, to 21. They’ll be over in 10 minutes, tops, which is why many of them will be able to be played in a short time.

In the first weekend of the tournament, every team would send its rosters to one of six qualifying events, one per division. You can send your entire roster, but only four players from each team are eligible to participate in each individual game. Each team would play a round robin against each of its divisional opponents. In the second weekend, each of the six divisional winners would go to a central site, and there would be another round robin there. The top two teams would play in a championship game. All told, that’s a lot of events the NBA can televise or sell tickets for.

The winner gets either a ton of money or a playoff berth. Yeah, I know, this entire post really boils down to my saying that there should be an event that gives a playoff berth or a ton of money to somebody in the middle of the season, and that the championship of that event should be in Las Vegas. But that should be a sign: Look, NBA, it’s easy money!

The Play-in Tournament

All of the midseason ideas are really just for fun. The most important element of any schedule restructure is an end-of-year tournament that ensures all 30 teams are eligible for the postseason until the final day of the season.

Here’s how it works: After 58 games, the top seven teams in each conference get playoff berths. The other eight are entered into a single-elimination tournament for the eighth and final spot. We could do it the simple way, with an easy-to-understand quarterfinal, semifinal, and final. But I’d prefer to stagger the tournament so better teams enter later. The top two teams would get double-byes straight to the semifinal of the play-in, so they’d have to win only two games to make the postseason, while the worst teams would have to win four.

This would serve many purposes: First of all, it would keep fans of every team interested until the very end of the season. You could never really tune out on your 12th-place team, because there’d still be a chance that they could make the playoffs with just three wins.

By going to best-of-five in the first round, we lost some playoff games. But by adding in the play-in tournament, we’d get those games back and then some. Not only would this add more playoff games—the cut from best-of-seven in the first round to best-of-five would have cost the league only nine games last year; the play-in tournament would feature 14 games—but the games would be more interesting. We’d be getting single-elimination games between actual NBA teams: In the existing format, we basically never get those, unless (a) the playoffs are already happening and (b) both teams have already won three games in a series. It’d be captivating to watch any team in a sudden-death format.

Plus, we’re spreading the playoff games between teams that otherwise wouldn’t have made the postseason. That gives actual postseason games (including home games!) to teams that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, spreading the wealth. And we’re not adding to the wear and tear of the league’s best players. Instead, we’re giving the 14 teams that qualified for the postseason a much-needed rest at the end of the year. The top teams would be motivated to put their best players on the court for the entire season (nobody’s running away with a 1-seed in just 58 games) and then take a break before the playoffs.

And we’d eliminate the problem of tanking. Even the worst teams would be motivated to round into top gear at the end of the season, since just four games could get them into the postseason. And we’d evenly split the odds for getting the top pick between the four teams that lose in the first round of the play-in tournament. It’s still possible that teams 27 to 30 would prefer to lose in the first round of the play-in tournament and get a 25 percent shot at the no. 1 pick than win in the first round and drop all the way down to the no. 5 pick, but it’d be hard to convince players and coaches to pass up the opportunity to potentially qualify for the actual postseason by going on a hot streak. It’s not perfect, but anything’s better than an April in which half of the league is eliminated and half of the league is resting for the grind of the playoffs.