Adam Silver and the rest of the NBA have been brainstorming on how to make a midseason tournament work to counter the load management movement.
Fans are buying tickets to games to see their favorite players play basketball. Unfortunately, some of the best players in the league such as Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid don’t play every game and scratch themselves from the lineup for “load management.”
Boomers argue that players are too friendly with each other these days and say the competitive fire is gone. Playing all 82 regular season games used to be a sought-after merit among NBA players, but today it is an overlooked rarity achieved by few stars. Today’s players (old-heads’ microcosm for “kids these days”) are “too soft.”
LeBron James, this generation’s G.O.A.T. and a model of consistency when it comes to avoiding major injuries, has played all 82 games just once in his career. He has eclipsed the 80-game mark three times total.
With no major injuries on his record, James has a lot of seasons in the 69 to 79 game-range. Those days off with the Heat and Cavaliers (the second time) were few and far between, but they marked the beginning of today’s load management craze.
The boomers’ GOAT, Michael Jordan, played 80 or more games 11 times, with nine of those seasons being the full 82. Jordan even played all 82 games in his final NBA season at the age of 39.
Today’s superstars on great teams don’t care about winning regular season games to jockey for playoff positioning. The NBA is a business, and the smart business move is to take a few regular season games off to keep yourself healthy for the meaningful basketball come April. Over half the league makes the playoffs under the current format, which the NBA has also proposed to change.
A midseason tournament would give fans a new, fun way to watch a chunk of the regular season. It takes a portion of the calendar and turns it into a tournament bracket, which is objectively more exciting for fans. But will it solve the load management problem?
Recent reports said the NBA is considering awarding victorious teams in the midseason tournament with supplementary draft picks. That would surely get owners, general managers and coaches to care, but what about the players?
There is more player movement in free agency and forced-trades today. No star in this league is going to bust their behind in the middle of the season to earn their team an extra draft pick. They aren’t even certain if they’re going to stick around to see that draft pick develop into an everyday player. Plus, players competing for championships would rather their team fill out the bench with NBA-experienced players, not rookies.
Another route the NBA can take is to try and make the midseason tournament prestigious over time. A midseason championship will obviously never match the importance of an NBA Finals, but maybe over the years it can become something players care about solely because they are competitors.
Silver can give it a cool, catchy name, crank up the pageantry and make a big ol’ trophy, but I don’t think this would work either. Fans love to compare legacies across eras, and that would become way tougher if we create another “rings” category.
If James ends his career with four Finals championships and two midseason championships, how does that compare to Jordan’s six Finals rings? I can already hear the boomers saying, “If Jordan played with midseason championships, he would’ve won 10 of ‘em!”
I understand that this only applies to people like me that love to argue about which players are better than others. A lot of basketball fans just want to watch the game and appreciate when players play well without need for comparison. These fans would love to watch a tournament just for the competitive nature of it.
But NBA players actually do care about their own legacies. That’s why Kevin Durant left the Warriors to win “on his own” instead of “riding Steph Curry’s coattails.” The public perception of his legacy is important to him.
So why would Kawhi care about a midseason tournament ring when he has two actual rings and would rather save his body for April to compete for more? Even if you offer the winners financial compensation, I don’t think that will be enough for the likes of Leonard, Embiid and of course the mega-wealthy LeBron James.
The only way to get superstars to care about a midseason tournament is to make it affect the real playoffs. There are a few ways to do this. The NHL seeds their playoff teams according to a points system. A win (overtime or not) gives a team two points, an overtime loss gives them one point and a loss gives zero points. The NBA uses the classic win-loss format that most leagues use and fans are familiar with. I think if the NBA starts a midseason tournament, that they should change to a points system.
The NBA can score it like this: All losses are zero points, regular season wins are one point and a midseason tournament win grants two points. This makes each and every midseason tournament game, even in the early rounds, important. Depending on the format of the tournament, the NBA can also make it so the last two rounds (the “conference finals” and “finals”) are worth three points each, raising the stakes.
A team like this season’s Trail Blazers, whose record is far below what they expected with their level of talent, can get themselves back on track with a midseason tournament run. Under this new proposed seeding format, though, timing and scheduling are very important.
If the tournament is too early, a team like the Lakers or Clippers can run the table, get a big lead in the standings in points and then coast into the playoffs by resting Leonard, Paul George, James and Anthony Davis a lot down the stretch. Watching those stars compete in the tournament would be fun, but then the rest of the regular season drags along.
If the tournament is too late in the season, players can load manage their way up to midseason in preparation to make a big tourney run and stack points to shoot up the standings. This can be countered by making the tournament single elimination, so it would become risky to bank on getting into the playoffs by stacking points with a tournament run and would encourage players to try getting points earlier on.
Plus, isn’t single elimination what makes March Madness so exciting? Anybody can eliminate anyone on any given day. Leonard would have to play through load management to ensure the Clippers get those precious points.
In short, I propose a league-wide, single-elimination midseason tournament where early round-wins count as two “wins,” and later rounds as three. It would be a fun wrinkle to the NBA season for fans to get excited about, and would discourage players from treating everything but the playoffs as less-important basketball. I did the hard part for you, Mr. Silver. Now make it happen.