How a mid-season, NCAA-style tournament in the NBA could stop players from skipping games

Stephen Curry and Draymond GreenSteve Dykes/Getty Images

The uproar over star NBA players taking nights off became a topic again in recent weeks as the league’s three best teams — the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers — all had their best players sit out nationally televised games.

The players are taking the games off to minimize injury risk and to make sure they are not too worn down when the playoffs arrive, which just adds more fuel to the growing sentiment among people in the NBA that the season is too long.

This is something LeBron James addressed during the 2014-15 season when the league experimented with shorter games.

“No. It’s not the minutes, it’s the games,”James told ESPN. “We can play 50-minute games if we had to. It’s just the games. We all as players think it’s too many games. In our season, 82 games is a lot.”

Of course, the problem is, while the players may want a shorter schedule, they are almost certainly not willing to take a pay cut that would come with it since the NBA would be losing revenue, both in the form of fans at games and rights to games being sold to TV networks.

So how does the NBA shorten their season and not lose revenue? There may actually be a simple solution and it is one they have already flirted with — a mid-season NCAA-style tournament.

In 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver brought up the idea of a single-elimination, mid-season tournament. Perhaps the best comparison would be the mid-season domestic cup tournaments held in European soccer leagues.

Silver didn’t offer any specifics at the time, suggesting the idea was still in its infancy, but it is easy to envision a way to add this tournament and solve the problem of resting stars at the same time.

Here is how it might work:

  • Shorten the NBA schedule to 66-70 games and add a 2-3 week break after the All-Star game — The break would come after the All-Star break, at a time when interest in the regular season is at its lowest and when rest is most needed.
  • Play a single-elimination tournament during the break with all 30 NBA teams and possibly expand it beyond that — If you want to get saucy and have some fun, also include G-League teams to give those players a chance to compete against the best players in the NBA and add the possibility of some true Cinderellas. More importantly, give every NBA team a chance to win a title other than the NBA championship, including the teams who know before the season starts that they are not a contender.
  • Sell the television rights to the tournament — This is the key. Individual games in the tournament would be worth much more to the networks than the regular-season games they would be replacing. It is not inconceivable that ESPN or Turner would actually pay more for the tournament than whatever the NBA would have to give back for having fewer games to broadcast in the regular season.
  • Give the best teams byes early in the tournamentIf the G-League teams are included, have them play a round or two to narrow down that group to ten teams. Those ten teams would join a pool of 22 NBA teams, leaving out the top four teams in each conference who would be on byes. The 32 teams (22 NBA and 10 G-League) would then play two rounds to narrow down to eight teams. The top four teams from each conference would then be added to the field to create a Sweet 16. This way, the teams that are most likely to need rest for the conference finals or the NBA Finals would play fewer games during the tournament, and those games would most likely come after 1-2 weeks of full rest.
  • Give the trophy a cool name — This may seem silly, but it’s important. Don’t let the players play for the Gatorade Trophy or the Kia Trophy. The NBA would be too tempted to sell the naming rights. Name it after somebody the players can respect. Maybe name it after Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, one of the NBA’s first black players. Give them a trophy worth competing for.

In the end, the NBA and its players get a shorter regular season and would probably make more money. In addition, players are going to be less likely to take regular-season games off since there will be fewer of them and they will be more important.

Meanwhile, fans get a super-duper-awesome tournament at a time of the season when only the true diehard fans are really paying attention.

Everybody wins.

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