The Mid-Season Tournament: So Crazy it Just Might Work

The NBA Board of Governors recently had a call to discuss several changes to the upcoming season. One of the most exciting ideas was their proposal for a mid-season tournament to add a little spice to a long regular season.

The official proposal was for a 78-game regular season (instead of the current 82) to make way for the tournament. All teams would initially compete before it culminates in an eight-team single-elimination bracket. The proposal included a $1 million cash prize for each winning player.

The key question, of course, is whether or not fans and players would give a ****.

I believe that if the quality of the basketball is good, and the players clearly care about the result, the fans can be won over — to an extent. More than any other league, the NBA is dominated by a Neanderthalic “ringzzzz-or-bust” discussion that diminishes any accomplishments that don’t result in NBA Finals championships.

That mindset may hold back some players and fans from embracing the fun that a mid-season tournament could provide, but I’m hopeful that if we incentivize teams appropriately, good vibes will follow.

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The cash prize is a nice start. Although top-tier superstars don’t need the cash, everyone else on the team would love to have it. And a cool million is nothing for any player to sneeze at, even max-contract guys. But we would need to go further.

I’ve been kicking ideas around with some friends and colleagues, and my favorite (courtesy of Poetry subscriber Alex) is to have the winner get an optional single-seed upgrade on their eventual playoff spot (guaranteeing at least a 10-seed).

The play-in tournament has successfully reinvigorated the seeding race for the playoffs. There’s a vast difference between a 9/10-seed and a 7/8-seed, a massive jump up to a 6-seed, and a real bump in home court advantage for 4-seeds and 2-seeds. Every upgrade is important now. If a team finishes as the 1-seed, they can still choose whether they want to play the 7- or 8-seed in the first round, so even regular-season juggernauts like last year’s Phoenix team should care.

If a team doesn’t like who they’d face if they upgraded, they wouldn’t have to take it. But it would be a benefit in the vast majority of situations. Just last year, we saw the Milwaukee Bucks tank away the 2-seed in favor of the 3-seed because they wanted to play the Bulls in the first round instead of the Nets. This incentive structure means that if the Bucks had won the mid-season tourney, instead of having to tank to avoid the 2-seed, they could have upgraded to the top seed, pushing Miami down to second.

The ripple effects could have been massive. The 3-seed Bucks lost in Game 7 to the 2-seed Celtics, who had home-court advantage in the clincher because the Bucks tanked below Boston. But if the Bucks had instead elevated to the top seed, they would have avoided the Celtics entirely and taken on a weakened and injured Philly team. We very well could have seen Milwaukee in the Finals instead of Boston.

A seed upgrade can be a massive difference and should serve as an excellent incentive for any tournament team. We don’t need to worry about what might happen if the team misses the playoffs since it caps their floor at the 10-seed. We could allow teams to keep their regular-season seeding for draft purposes, ensuring that even tanking teams might want to win the mid-season tournament – how great would it be for a team to have something like the third-best lottery odds AND a legitimate shot at making the playoffs?

The All-Star break and trade deadline happen roughly two-thirds of the way through the season, so this tournament might be a good break a third of the way through the year. It would give top teams a real chance to stack up against each other, clarifying strengths and weaknesses before the trade deadline. It would give fans of bad teams a reason to be excited about trying to win games for a brief moment before the reality of tanking resumes. I’m convinced the Oklahoma City Thunder could find a way to win this tournament and still hit the lottery!

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No, this wouldn’t be a Finals championship, and it’s not supposed to be. But if teams know there is something real to play for, both monetarily and in their quest for a ring, they’ll play hard. And if they’re playing hard, the fans will get excited.

Many people were skeptical of the play-in tournament before it came about, and it’s been a roaring success in virtually every way. The in-season tournament could be as well, and I think it would do well to differentiate itself from the playoffs in a few ways to become its own standalone thing.

Single-elimination tournaments are the best, as March Madness shows every year. So that’ll help. We can do away with conference alignments – let the Suns and the Warriors play each other in the final game, if that’s how things break. Perhaps, as my coworker Trey suggested, we could implement the Elam ending the All-Star game uses — playing to a set score instead of a final buzzer. Then every match will have a game-winning shot, which could make for some extraordinary viral moments the league would love to have circulating through the social media tubes. Imagine Giannis breaking a tie game in the championship with a series-winning dunk or Steph draining a three to send Tatum and the Celtics home yet again. Twitter would lose its collective hive mind.

I think experimentation is fun, but more importantly, it’s becoming essential to survival. Sports leagues know that fewer and fewer fans are sitting down and watching entire games just for the sake of the game. Betting, fantasy, social media, and other things have increased the importance of staying in the average consumer’s consciousness with interesting stories and fun events. The mid-season tournament, if implemented wisely, can check both of those boxes, and I hope that fans and players will give it a fair shake when it becomes a reality.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.