How would the Toronto Raptors fare in a ‘group of death?’
If we’re lucky we’ll get to find out as the NBA considers formats for returning to play, some more exciting and innovative than others.
In that sense, basketball fans are blessed to live in interesting times as the COVID-19 pandemic represents a wrinkle in time that shouldn’t be wasted on the dull and conventional.
“Never let a crisis go to waste” is a quote that has long been attributed to Winston Churchill although the exact origins are a bit fuzzy. It sounds like something that the revered British prime minister would have said, the point being that even in dark and uncertain times there are opportunities to do big and transformative things.
I have no idea if NBA commissioner Adam Silver is a history buff, but he has proven himself willing to innovate. He’s reformed the draft lottery and has entertained a range of possibilities to tweak the league further.
Ideas like a 78-game regular season (down from 82), play-in tournaments for the final playoff seeds and an in-season tournament — an idea borrowed from European soccer and basketball — were all concepts that Silver was exploring in advance of the NBA’s 75th anniversary season in 2021-22.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything and is requiring the NBA to remake itself on the fly, coming up with one-off solutions to what Silver described as “the fight of our lives.”
Until recently, most of the league’s internal discussions — those that have bubbled into the public sphere at least — have focused on if, when and how the league will safely resume competition and the reported $900-million revenue shortfall it would reportedly be dealing with if it can’t or doesn’t.
But as one league insider told me last week, momentum has shifted.
There is a tacit acknowledgement that play will resume; the league office conceded Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando is the almost certain venue to gather multiple teams at a neutral site for fan-less games and the timing seems to be firming up too, with mid-July — give or take a week or two — as the target date.
Another sign are recent reports — and this has to be ear candy to fans — about what the nature of the competition might be. The most unfortunate of circumstances have presented the league with a clean slate to conduct the greatest experiments in the history of sport, let alone in the NBA should they choose.
Typically, in professional sports, inertia rules the day. With so many vested interests — ownership, unions, league priorities, broadcast partners nationally and locally, fans, to name a few — sweeping changes are impossible because pleasing one constituency comes at the risk of alienating another.
For likely the only time, many of those factors don’t apply. With the entire league gathered in one place, travel considerations are out the window and awarding home court is not a consideration. Since the league’s revenue picture has been so drastically altered, there is a lot less to lose, while operating outside of the status quo brings the promise of upside.
Since the players and owners stand to benefit from whatever revenue can be generated by basketball’s return, the two groups’ interests are aligned to a degree that is likely unprecedented.
And perhaps best of all, because the circumstances are unique and (hopefully) unlikely to be repeated: If things don’t work out? No worries. It can be written off as a one-off solution to never-before-seen challenges.
But if something does work? Maybe it can be kept and modified so the spirit of it lives on when things eventually return to normal.
In that vein, Silver should push all parties to get as creative as possible. There are signs that ‘same-old same-old’ is going out the window.
On Monday came reports that the playoff format could change from the traditional 1-8 seeds in each conference to a league-wide 1-through-16 bracket that would be finalized after some kind of play-in tournament to determine who gets in and in what order.
If the league decides to go 1-through-16, the Raptors will take their third-best overall record into a first-round match-up against former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas and rookie sensation Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies. Next they would be expected to play Kitchener’s Jamal Murray and his Denver Nuggets for the chance to face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and — gulp — LeBron James, the nightmare from playoffs past. Unless the league decides to reseed after each playoff round or even after before the ‘final four’ to give the greatest possible chance the league’s two best teams meet in the Finals — another innovation worth considering.
Is this the best format? The reality is we simply don’t and can’t know.
What we do know is there will never be a better chance to try it.
But the idea that has really caught my eye is the possibility of the first round of the playoffs being replaced by a World Cup-style group stage, a concept presented to general managers late last week and first outlined by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.
The league would invite the top 20 teams to Orlando — which would conveniently include the likes of budding superstar Zion Williamson the New Orleans Pelicans who are 10th in the west — and place them in four evenly matched groups of five for what would be an expanded first-round of the playoffs.
Teams would play each squad in their group twice for a total of eight group-stage games to determine the top two teams in each group. Those eight teams would advance to the second round of the playoffs and start a three-round, best-of-seven playoff to determine an NBA champion.
It would be a radical departure for the league and even for sports in North America, where the kind of group-stage format common in international competitions is a novelty.
Meanwhile, first-round series in the NBA rarely provide the kind of tension the later rounds do. There have been 288 first-round playoff series since the NBA expanded the playoffs to eight teams per conference in 1984, and the first- or second-seeded teams have won 278 of them. Since the league went to best-of-seven first-round series in 2003, No. 2 and No. 1 seeds have only been eliminated once.
It’s blahsville, really.
But in a group stage format every team would be playing meaningful games right out of the box in order to avoid a misstep that could cost them. Rather than having to wait through eight fairly predictable opening-round series there would be high-profile teams playing must-win games on opening night.
Making every game matter also avoids the possibility of teams that are outside the playoffs now going through a training camp just to play some meaningless regular-season games to fulfil broadcast obligations. Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said he would sit on the bench rather than risk injury in game without consequence.
That would not be an issue with a World Cup-style opening round. If anything, the stakes might be too high for teams like the Raptors, who wouldn’t get the type of insulation a top-seeded team normally earns in the regular season.
But that would make for some riveting television for the fans who are, after all, the engine that drives the NBA’s economy. And there would be more games.
In a 16-team playoff format, the maximum number of first-round games is 56 and that requires all eight series to go the full seven games, something that has never come close to happening.
In a group-stage format, there would be 80 first-round games guaranteed. If the league wanted to provide a bit more buffer to make sure the top-seeded teams advance — more games should give more chances for the cream to rise — they could add another game to the round-robin and there would be 120 games, which would undoubtedly please the league’s content-starved TV partners.
If the 20 teams were divided into five tiers based on regular-season record, the Raptors with their third-best record could be in a pool with one team ranked 5-8, another ranked 9-12, a third from the tier of teams ranked 13-16 and a team ranked from the 17-20 group. What might that look like? How about a five-team pool that, along with the Raptors, included the Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Grizzlies and Pelicans with two the top-two teams advancing?
There is not an easy game to be had and that’s just to get to the second round. The tension would be ratcheted up from the word ‘go.’ Must-see games would abound. The Lakers could play the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder in pool play; the Los Angeles Clippers could have to fight with the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia Sixers and a healthy Trail Blazers club to keep their championship dreams intact.
After what could be four-plus months of calm, fans would be hit with an explosion of competitive basketball right out of the gate. Even the group-stage draw would be a magnetic TV event, a perfect commercial to drum up interest and let the sports world know the NBA was back.
The potential exists for upsets. The Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks — or heaven forbid from the point of view of the TV networks — the Lakers or Clippers could stumble in pool play and quickly find themselves on the outside looking in. Stubbing your toe in the first round — as the Raptors did in dropping Game 1 against Orlando last season — is less penalizing in a seven-game series against a weaker opponent. Dropping a game or two to a low seed in group play could mean a must-win game against one of the league’s top-tier teams just to advance.
Critics suggest flattening the league into silos with an equal chance to advance could be seen as devaluing 65-plus regular season games that have been played.
As one Eastern Conference insider put it to me: “Go straight to the playoffs, East and West … 16 teams is safest, they already earned it.”
It’s hard to argue that point, but it’s also hard to deny that there is no better time to throw safe to the side and be bold and different.
As another NBA executive said to me: “Bring it on.”