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Why the NBA Could (and Should) Look More Like the World Cup

The league is considering several formats for its restart, but the best approach is to work in groups

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Adam Silver isn’t shy about trying new things. Late Friday night, the league office sent a survey to all 30 general managers asking for their feedback on several different formats to restart the season. One proposal is to replace the first round of the playoffs with a “group stage” in which the 20 teams with the best records would be placed into four groups of five teams. Teams would play two games against each opponent in their own group, and the teams with the two best records from each group would qualify for the second round of the playoffs. Eight teams would advance, and then teams would play seven-game series to determine the champion.

Silver admitted in Paris this January that he’s “jealous in certain ways of soccer globally,” and advocated for the NBA to adopt a soccer-style midseason tournament and a late-season play-in tournament. The plan stalled, but the group stage could be an opportunity for the NBA to try to capture some World Cup soccer magic. A total of 80 games could be played over two and a half weeks, and every one of them would be a must-win. It’d be a gauntlet during which legacies would be on the line and young stars could vie for greatness. The NBA has never experienced anything like it.

The league could still pick up where it left off, with all 30 teams playing a handful more regular-season games, or go straight to the postseason using the current standings and the current playoff format. But Silver has been pushing innovative changes for years, and front office executives have long believed that the commissioner’s preference is to use this restart as a time to experiment.

It’s a pivotal week ahead for the league. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has been conducting Zoom calls with individual teams over the past week to detail potential paths to resume play, and the financial impact of any decision. On Wednesday, the NBA’s advisory/finance committee will hold a conference call to discuss plans moving forward, according to sources. And this Friday, the board of governors will meet and Silver will formally present formats for resuming the season, according to multiple league sources. Possibly as soon as next week, teams and players will vote on which path to take when games resume, all of which will likely be hosted at Disney World. Here’s why the group stage offers the most upside for the NBA and how it could work.

The Group Stage Format

The 16 current playoff teams would qualify for the group stage, plus the four teams with the next-best records (Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs). The remaining 10 teams would be done for the season. The survey sent to each general manager noted that “tiers” would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups.

For example, the 20 teams could be allocated into five tiers in descending order by record:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, Sixers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

Groups could then be randomly drawn, with one team from each tier going into each group. The NBA is working on approaches to fairly balance the groupings, such as limiting each group to only three Western Conference teams, according to multiple front office sources. Drawings for the group stage could be televised, league sources say. The NBA draft lottery has yielded between 2.4 million and 4.4 million viewers the past 10 years on ESPN; a live drawing of the groups, even with Silver and a representative from every team broadcasting from their own homes, would do major numbers. Here’s one draw of the groups based on a random number generator:

Teams would play opponents within their own groups twice, meaning every team would play eight games. The two teams in each group with the best record would move on. A tie-breaking procedure has yet to be settled on, but utilizing the highest winning percentage from the regular season would be a logical first option. The league could then use its existing tiebreakers to determine playoff seedings, with head-to-head records being the next criterion.

Each of the groups from our example is even—they should produce matchups that are challenging and entertaining, and offer plenty of story lines to drive discussion during the weeks of training camp. Take Group 2, for example. We could watch an afternoon matinee with Houston’s pick-and-roll attack facing off against Miami’s zone defense, then a marquee matchup between LeBron and Zion. Two days later, we’d get to watch the Lakers face the Rockets. In Group 1, Damian Lillard and a now-healthy Blazers squad would get a shot at making a playoff run, but they’d have to go through multiple elite defenses to do it—facing the Bucks one day, the Sixers the next, and then the Jazz. Every single day, all day long, there would be multiple great games to watch.

One concern raised by team executives is the possibility of a “group of death”—a term used by soccer fans to describe groups that are far stronger than others, making it unfair for the top contenders. For example, if groups are randomly drawn, there is an unlikely-but-possible scenario that the Bucks could end up in a group with the Celtics, Rockets, Mavericks, and Pelicans—arguably the four best teams in Tiers 2 through 5. As an alternative to having groups randomly selected, multiple league sources say the league has considered allowing Tier 1 teams—the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers—to draft their own groups. Now that would make for some drama during a selection show.

But Eastern Conference teams have already pushed back at the league for the group stage suggestion, according to league sources. The East is weaker than the West, and teams wouldn’t want to give up leverage in future discussions to reseed the postseason or remove conferences entirely. It’s a fair point, but conferences aren’t going away anytime soon, because of concerns about coast-to-coast travel, even under normal circumstances. In my opinion, the groups are balanced almost every single way you distribute teams from each tier. All teams in tiers 2 and 3 are relatively even, and with the exception of the Mavericks, the same can be said for tiers 4 and 5. Any minor kinks could be ironed out if the league and the NBPA agree to fully explore this scenario.

Perhaps teams who earned home-court advantage during the regular season could gripe about having to go against other formidable opponents on a neutral court. The Bucks and Lakers had all but locked up the first seeds in each conference when the season was suspended, and were lined up for seven-game series against the eighth-seeded Magic and Grizzlies, respectively. But utilizing regular-season win percentage as a tiebreaker gives them an edge—and they’d still be heavily favored regardless of the format. If they, along with the Raptors and Clippers, were also allowed to draft their opponents from each tier in the group stage, it would also help make up the loss of their home-court advantage.

There was one month of regular-season games remaining when the season was suspended, which meant there was still time for East and West teams to shuffle in the standings. The round-robin nature of a group stage similarly allows for teams to jostle for positioning before the traditional seven-game series begin. It also gives teams that were on the playoff bubble, like the Blazers and Pelicans, another chance. Other proposed formats, such as going straight to a 16-team playoff format or featuring a postseason play-in tournament for the eighth seed, fail to account for any of those variables.

The Other Possible Formats

One of the driving factors in Silver’s desire to try something new, league sources believe, is to drum up more interest in the game. Getting casual fans invested in the early rounds is a problem the league faces annually. Ratings were down significantly in the first round last year, partially because LeBron was out, but also because there was a lack of interesting series; there were two sweeps, only one six-gamer, and only one Game 7. The league made several other proposals to GMs last week, including one that would have all 30 teams resume the regular season to finish with 72 or 76 games. League sources have consistently said during the past few weeks that games will likely resume with the playoffs. That has yet to be determined, but with that in mind, let’s review the other proposals for going straight to the postseason.

• Utilize play-in tournaments for the eighth seed that involve bubble playoff teams (or play-in tournaments for the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference): I support this concept for future seasons. But not now. As stated earlier, the entire standings could have shuffled had the season continued. What is the value in having the Kings go back to training camp for three weeks, undergo a quarantine at Disney, and then play only one or two play-in games? In a group stage, each team would be guaranteed eight games. And is there a single good reason to bring back teams way out of the race like the Wizards (5.5 games back of the Magic) or Hornets (seven games back from the Magic) to compete for a playoff spot?

Advance directly to the playoffs based on March 12 standings: This is by far the simplest solution. Teams on the playoff bubble in the West would have a right to gripe, but other than that, complaints would be minimal. But it’s also bland, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.

Advance directly to the playoffs based on March 12 standings, without conferences: All the aforementioned concerns Eastern Conference teams have about conference imbalance apply to the conferenceless approach. Here’s how the bracket would look without conferences:

A 16-team playoff bracket without conferences would make for a fresh change to the traditional schedule. But a group format is less monotonous; individual groups have a few boring matchups (such as Pacers-Kings), but those games would happen only twice instead of at least four times, and they wouldn’t happen consecutively like they do with a 16-team bracket. That’s what’s so brutal about many first-round series. With or without conferences, we’d be locked into a Bucks-Magic series for over a week. Without conferences, Lakers-Nets has little intrigue while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are sidelined. Winners of those short series would also be stuck in Florida without any games to play until other series conclude—whereas a group stage would assure all teams finish within a day or two of each other before the second round begins.

A Potential Ratings Sensation

If other recent sporting events are any indication, NBA ratings should be up this summer no matter the format. An average of 5.8 million people watched “The Match 2,” a charity golf event held this past weekend, which made it the most-viewed golf telecast in cable television history. NASCAR had 6.3 million viewers when it returned last week, up 38 percent over its last race in March. The Last Dance averaged 5.6 million same-day viewers, making it the most-watched documentary ever on ESPN. If you’re reading this article, the odds are you’ll watch the NBA no matter what format is used. But the league also needs to think about the casual fans who don’t really care about the first round of the playoffs, the ones who ask, “Why should I watch the Bucks sweep the Magic?”

American basketball fans might be most familiar with the concept of a group stage through the Olympics or the World Cup, where the format has been used for decades. But watching the United States in a group stage hasn’t been historically compelling since the team is so typically overpowering compared to most countries. Look to soccer for how great a group stage can be. Many soccer fans consider the 2018 World Cup the greatest in history, partially because of how exciting the group stage was. There were drama-filled games on a literal daily basis, with an endless barrage of stoppage-time goals, unbelievable saves, epic individual performances, comebacks, and upsets. For NBA fans in America, a group stage format would create a March Madness vibe at the pro level: Every single game would matter and there would always be a good game to watch.

A group stage would also make for a potential gambling bonanza, with games airing from noon to midnight. Multiple league sources have remarked about how additional eyeballs would be drawn to the league due to the gambling possibilities. Sports gambling is also now legal in 22 jurisdictions; five states with a team that would participate in a group-stage playoffs—Colorado, Indiana, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee—all legalized it within the past year. The NBA may never approach the NFL in terms of viewership, partially due to the latter’s easy accessibility to bettors and fantasy sports players, but a group stage would make for an interesting experiment in a year when sports fans are looking for something, anything, to watch and gamble on.

A group stage also guarantees more games, which would help earn back money that has been lost as a result of the layoff. If the NBA moves straight to the playoffs with a traditional seven-game format, the most games that could be played in the first round is 56. Since the league switched to seven games in the first round for the 2003 playoffs, the average number of games is 44. It’d be nearly double if a group stage with 20 teams is utilized. Each team would play eight games, making for 80 total games.

Lingering Concerns

It’s unclear how these games would count toward existing contracts with regional sports networks (RSN) and national television stations (ESPN, TNT, and ABC). NBA teams have deals with RSNs for regular-season games; once teams hit roughly 70 games aired on their RSN, the league retains 100 percent of the revenue from those contracts. The NBA also has national deals to air a decided number of games on each network. So it’s unknown how group-stage games would financially fulfill either of those contracts. But sources on both the league side and television side believe an agreement can easily be reached because of the potentially massive ratings that could follow. Group-stage games could realistically air “side by side” on both a team’s regional sports network and on national television, just like most first-round games already do.

There is much to be lost if the postseason is canceled. National television revenue losses would total about $900 million, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick. Any loss would have tremendous implications on the salary cap, and thus potential earnings for teams and players.

In the short term, the players association could attempt to negotiate a larger playoff pool than the currently expected $24 million that will be distributed each round to players competing in the postseason. If a group stage is used, the money would have to be distributed to more players, meaning a larger amount of potential earnings should be awarded.

Teams are also taking on some level of risk by playing games at a neutral site. As I detailed last week, proper testing is one of the primary challenges the league is facing. If games can’t be played safely, then none of the discussion around game formats will matter. There’s belief circulating around front offices that the league doesn’t think the pros of bringing back all 30 teams to complete as much of the regular season as possible outweigh the cons. Having 30 teams in competition means many more people need to be at Disney World, and more people on site means a higher chance that a local coronavirus outbreak will occur. A group stage would feature more games than a normal first round, so there’d be more instances of teams being in close contact with each other. But it would feature a smaller pool of players, and far fewer games than if the regular season resumes.

Some players might be unhappy about not returning to finish the regular season to earn the remainder of their contracts. Would players really choose to concede millions just so half the league can earn a playoff bonus? Owners would want that—if the regular season resumes and finishes, teams will need to pay players despite not earning gate-related revenue. But the players association and the league need to weigh the potential long-term risks and financial losses that could come from having all 30 teams resume play versus a limited number of teams going straight to the postseason.

No matter what the league decides, someone will have something to complain about because there is no perfect solution. Silver and the NBA are turning over every stone to find the best testing procedures and structures to resume play. This week will be a big one for basketball. By June, we could have a clearer idea of what the restart will look like. The big question now is whether the league will stick with what they know, or try something new and innovative that could change the league for the better for years to come.