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How To Fix The NBA: A New, March-Styled League Cup Tournament

The most exciting and thrilling sporting event every year is the NCAA tournament. Year in and year out the entire country is captivated by the 68-team field fighting to survive and advance through the win or go home tournament. The Madness is not only wildly popular and successful because it brings the best players and teams–along with some intriguing underdogs–from around the nation to play for the NCAA championship, but also because it uses an awesome format. It is time for the NBA to follow suit.

The way to do so is with a Cup competition. The idea comes from Europe, where many leagues–both basketball and soccer–have had teams fighting for years to win the prestigious Cup. The Cup is a single-elimination, win or go home tournament. The intent is not to replace the Larry O’Brien trophy, and in fact, the Cup will have no bearing on the regular season at all. It is simply adding another title–a chance for a struggling team to catch fire and salvage a lost season, for a perennial contender to win a title and quell the disappointment of not winning the NBA Finals, or even for a juggernaut to cement their historical significance by winning both the Cup and championship, completing a rare and illustrious “double.”

Here is how the tournament will work: at the beginning of the season, the league office will randomly draw first-round matchups for 28 teams. The random matchups will be placed in a bracket, and things will play out from there. There are no rankings or seeds, so any team could be placed anywhere in the bracket. For the inaugural tournament, we will give the teams who made the NBA Finals in the previous season a first-round bye. So if we were playing for the Cup this season, the Heat and Spurs would automatically be moving on to the NBA’s Sweet 16. Then, in each progressive year, the two teams that made the Cup Final would be given the bye the following season.

The timing of the NBA Cup will be a little different than that of the NCAA tournament. Instead of the whole tournament being played in one month, in the NBA Cup, only one round will be played each month. The rounds will be spaced around 15-game intervals, with the tournament commencing in early December, the Sweet 16 in mid-January, the Elite 8 in late February, and finally the Final Four over a weekend in the middle of April.

For the opening round of the tournament, the first seven games will be played on a Saturday, and the remaining seven played the next day. For those two days, the regular season will be suspended, so the Cup games will be the main focus of the basketball world.

For the next round, we will target week 17 of the NFL Playoffs. Most NFL teams are resting their starters by that point, and the games mean next to nothing more often than not, which will put all eyes on the road to the Cup. We will use that weekend to play our Sweet 16, with four games on Saturday and the other four on Sunday. Now we have our Elite Eight.

We will schedule the Elite Eight towards the end of February, a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl and just before any college conference tournaments. We will again stagger the games, with two on Saturday and the other two on Sunday. Think TNT would offer up some cash to show any of these games?

We will leave March to the college guys. No one is expecting the NBA Cup to approach the popularity of March, but it is clear that basketball fans–and even casual fans–love the unpredictability that comes with a single-elimination basketball tournament. The NBA will capitalize on that.

Come mid-April, we will have our Final Four play on a Thursday, and then save our grand finale for our very own Super Bowl Sunday, NBA-style.

You might be saying, “The timeline looks great, but where’s the drama? Won’t it just be all playoff teams in the Sweet 16? Won’t the Final Four just be the same teams I’ll see in the conference championship of the regular NBA season?”

I’d be delighted to prove you wrong.

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First of all, if you’re saying that, you certainly weren’t watching this year’s NCAA tournament–or any year’s for that matter. You never know what will happen when things come down to single elimination (take it from a guy who picked a Kansas-Duke final in his bracket). The tournament will be unpredictable just by its nature. Anything can happen in one game.

Also, unlike the NCAA tourney, the NBA Cup brackets will be chosen at random. Because there is no seeding, that means we could see a clash of two titans such as the Pacers and Thunder as early as round one. It might not be fair to those two teams, but that is the nature of the beast. Some fans might complain that we lose out on seeing that game in a later round of the tournament, but who is going to turn down an early season showdown of two heavyweights, one that could set the tone for a potential Finals? Plus, there is no guarantee we would even see that same matchup later on anyway thanks to the unpredictable nature of the tournament.

Another factor that will help create even more unexpected results is homecourt advantage. For the first three rounds, the team with the worse record overall up to that point in the season will host the game. So if the Bucks are matched up with the Rockets, the Bucks will have homecourt advantage. Pretty simple. If two teams happen to have the same record at the time, then a coin flip will be used to determine who gets awarded home court.

The Final Four will be played at a neutral site. That neutral site will be Las Vegas. The NCAA has the road to the Final Four, and now the NBA will have the Road to Vegas. I don’t think there will be any trouble getting that sponsored.

These two factors alone–a single-elimination format and home court for the team with the worse record that season–will help create an extremely entertaining and unpredictable tournament. However, there is one more wrinkle that will bust even more NBA Cup brackets.

Let’s think back to when I mentioned the games would be played around 15-game intervals. The win totals over those periods will have a little extra meaning. After each 15-game stretch, the two teams matching up will have their win totals subtracted from each other, and then the team with the lower number of wins of the two will start the game ahead by that number of points. Are you with me?

Let’s use an example to hammer this out. Let’s again say we had the NBA Cup ready to go for 2014. Adam Silver gives us our bracket, and one of early December first-round matchups features the Thunder and the Jazz. First, we take the number of wins OKC got in their first 15 games, which was 12. We then subtract the number of wins the Jazz got in their first 15 games, which was only one. This leaves us with a score of 11. Before tip off, the Jazz would be given an 11-point lead. Normally, you’d think a Thunder-Jazz matchup would be a cakewalk for Kevin Durant and company. Things get a little more interesting with the game in Salt Lake City and an 11-point deficit for the visitors, no?

Not all games would feature a point differential this drastic. In fact, some wouldn’t have any at all. If Minnesota and Atlanta matched up in round one, a coin flip would be needed to determine who would host the game, as they both started the season with eight wins out of their first 15 contests. The game would proceed as any normal NBA game would, with no point advantage for either side.

As the rounds progress, the manner of determining the advantage would stay the same. In the Sweet 16, the remaining 16 teams’ number of wins from game 16 to game 30 would determine who would start with the advantage and what that advantage would be. The same format would be used in the Elite 8 as well, but of course using game 31 through game 45.

The point advantage is determined from the 15-game stretch before each round, but home court is determined based on overall record. Let’s say Brooklyn and Miami were slated to matchup in the Elite 8, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Brooklyn did not have a great start to the season, but they did get hot in the stretch of games from 31 to 45, where they compiled 10 wins. Miami has had a great overall season, but have had some consistency issues. The Heat only won nine games during this same stretch. Rather than give Miami both a one-point advantage and home court, we will give the Heat the point advantage, but Brooklyn still maintains home court, because their record to that point in the season was only 20-25, while Miami’s was still an impressive 32-13.

Once we get to the Final Four, all advantages are thrown out of the window. No homecourt advantage, and no starting advantage, either. In the Final Four, you have to earn it from start to finish.

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For the ideal NBA Cup, we would have to tweak the current schedule a little. Those tweaks would include playing fewer games–with more time in between games–and starting the season later. These changes would be beneficial in many ways. First, it would give the league the biggest spotlight when compared to other sports to give the cup as much publicity as possible (such as avoiding the NFL playoffs and March). Some might argue that the owners would never allow fewer games in a season, but they would without a doubt make that money back and then some with the sponsorships and TV money from the Cup. According to Business Insider, the NCAA tournament brings in more TV money than both the NFL Playoffs (yes, that includes the Super Bowl) and the NBA Playoffs. That stat alone will make owners excited to give the Cup a chance.

Shortening the schedule would give teams more rest, and fewer back-to-backs will keep teams fresher for longer. Teams would obviously still rather be playing, but those who are eliminated from the Cup would just have those designated weekends off, giving them even more time for rest and recuperation. The extra rest would aid in reducing injuries, which has become an issue in the league in recent years. The health of all the best players in the game ensures a better product, and fewer games would create a higher demand for each individual game, increasing fan interest.

The Cup will force teams to be sharp the entire season. The Heat have almost no incentive to play their best throughout the season, as in the putrid East they were more or less guaranteed the second seed before the season started (and despite a recent stretch where they lost seven out of 11, they still might end up with the one seed anyway). Would they sleepwalk through February knowing just around the corner there is a Cup game with a trip to the Final Four on the line?

Another benefit of the Cup is that there is no incentive to tank. With no draft implications, every team will fight tooth and nail to survive and advance as long as possible. The point advantage and home court will give the less successful teams some hope. Every team has talent, and give NBA coaches a month to prepare for a certain opponent, no matter who it is, and anything can happen. A surprising gameplan, an unorthodox defense, or a whole new offensive playbook could allow for any team to make a run in the Cup (except maybe this year’s version of the 76ers).

Assuming success of the tournament for the first few years, the Cup would also open the door to a potential worldwide tournament, and the naming of a true “world champion.” We could add teams from all over the globe, bringing in the best teams from Europe, Asia and Australia. That would obviously change the logistics of the tournament, but would make it more exciting on an international scale. It would also be interesting to see how the top teams in other leagues could compete with NBA teams. Could a top-level European team compete with an NBA team? I’m sure everyone would like to find out. (Except maybe some NBA owners who know how good some of the top-level teams overseas are.)

New commissioner Adam Silver is known to be open to progressive, new ideas. At first this may look like a radical change, but it really would not be that difficult to implement. It would, without question, be an incredibly exciting and unpredictable addition to the NBA season. We already know the single elimination format can work in basketball, and there is no doubt it would be a smashing hit. Let’s start on the Road to Vegas. It is time for the NBA Cup.

***

The NBA Cup

Who: Every NBA team.

What: A single elimination, win or go home Cup competition. It has no bearing on the regular NBA season–it is simply adding another title.

Where: The first three rounds will be home games for the team with the worse overall record. The Final Four will be played in Las Vegas.

How and when: Shorten the season by about ten games. Block off weekends in early December, mid-January, late-February and mid-April. The whole basketball world will have their eyes on the cup.

Why: The cup competition will give basketball fans more of the game’s most exciting format, but this time with its best players on earth. For the owners, the why is simple: $$$$$$$$$$$$

Could this work?

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @rsharry35.

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