More details about the NBA’s planned in-season tournament are leaking out, with a Board of Governors vote scheduled for April to move the proposal forward for the 2021-22 season. The players’ union will have to bless the idea at some point, as well.
Some people like the idea of an in-season tournament. Some people hate it. My question is how it could go wrong between now and execution. Let us count the ways.
1. High-revenue markets rally against it
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports some governors from high-revenue markets are balking at losing two regular-season home games in all these schedule changes. The regular home schedule would go from 41 to 39 games, and that loss of two games is material for the set of teams that makes millions of dollars in gate revenue for every home game. You might make up one of these games with a home game in the Round of Eight in the in-season tournament if you’re a top-four seed.
Are there enough teams making such good bread on regular season games that they could block the proposal? Probably not. But if you peel a few of these for this reason and other governors find other reasons to hate it — I’m not sure East teams will love the conference final reseeding idea, since over the past two decades it may have reduced their presence in the NBA Finals — the league could be in trouble.
2. Teams tank the group stage to get rest
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reports that the group stage will be in-division home-and-homes. It’s not clear if these will all occur within the time period of this tournament, or if they will be sprinkled amid the first two months of the season. (Milwaukee has already played eight division games, for example.) But teams will know which games apply to the group stage in either case, and if good teams aiming at championships don’t want to play in the knockouts for a shot at a little extra money and some pride, strategic rest decisions can be made.
I’m not convinced this is as big a risk as many make it out to be. Look at the Lakers, going hard every single night despite the best record in the conference. Pride probably overtakes strict scientific reasoning here. Teams and players like to succeed, even if the prize is of questionable value.
3. Tiebreaker hell
The tiebreaker situation is going to be out of control. Each division winner of the group stage will get into the 8-team tournament. You are absolutely going to have divisions where two or three teams are tied at 6-2 or 5-3 at the top. Tiebreaker hell!
The last two spots in the knockout round go to the next two best teams. That’s going to get extremely messy because there are only so many records you can have after eight games! Out of the 24 non-division winners, getting enough separation will be tough. So there will need to be a complex system of tiebreakers to determine who gets in and who doesn’t.
Are playoff tiebreakers your favorite features of March and April? Well, you’re in luck.
4. Boring crowds for the Final Four
The semifinals and finals of the in-season tournament will be played at a neutral site, per Woj. It’s probably going to be Las Vegas, the NBA’s unofficial capital, and it’s probably going to be scheduled alongside the G League Showcase since all the league’s executives and general managers will be there.
This is awful. The NCAA makes neutral site tournaments work because college kids and loyal fans travel well. NBA fans do not really have a history of regularly traveling well. If the tournament is in Vegas, those will be Lakers home games.
You know how dead the All-Star Game crowd is? That’s going to be these semifinal and championship games for the in-season tournament unless one of those big national teams is involved. Regular NBA fans who fill arenas 41 times a season right now are not going to be blowing thousands of dollars to see the Bucks take on the Nuggets in Las Vegas in December at the last minute, with no predictability they’ll even make it. (Superfluous air travel for thousands of fans: the basis of the next NBA Green campaign?)
Those games should be played in the higher seed’s home arena (which would solve the Issue No. 1 regarding lost home gate revenue and reduce travel costs for fans) or there should be some sort of stakes involved ... like the reigning NBA champion hosts the tournament, or last year’s cup winner gets it. That wouldn’t solve the bad crowd issue (and Toronto’s reign would cause international travel issues for fans) but it adds some mystique to the proceedings.
5. No one cares
The biggest risk the NBA runs with this tournament is that no one will care.
This is also the problem that the NBA is trying to solve — fans losing interest in the regular season. In this fractured media and entertainment, not even a multi-billion dollar enterprise with the cultural cachet of the NBA can make people care about something. Fans will or won’t decide whether this is worth their attention. Fans decided the NBA awards show was not worth their attention, despite the NBA’s best efforts to make it feel important and worth watching. This tournament could run into the same problem, and there’s really nothing the league can do about it but design it as well as possible and hope for the best.