At last, a real NBA tournament

April, 24, 2012
4/24/12
10:25
AM ET
By Henry Abbott and Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Most of HoopIdea works like this: You take the way things always have been done and envision something a little different. Something maybe not that obvious, but hopefully better.

This HoopIdea flips the script. You take the way things always have worked, the most obvious things in the world, and you say: Let's do that.

In many ways this HoopIdea isn't an idea at all. This HoopIdea is to conform to how things always have worked in basketball -- in grade school, high school, AAU, college, the Euroleague, Spain's ACB, the Olympics, the world championships, even at your local health club or rec center.

This HoopIdea is to end the NBA's odd practice of being just about the only basketball league anywhere without a single-elimination tournament.

Where organized basketball is played, there are tournaments where you win or go home, and in every case they are the most meaningful and entertaining games of the season.

Something about this sport simply works with this format. We like the sport for its crunch time, but those end-of-game moments are so much more thrilling when both teams have everything on the line. Surely any league would want to create as many of those moments as possible.

It also works as a business. Increasingly, the NBA's bottom line rises and falls with television revenues. What would this do for TV revenues? We know this: America's other prominent single-elimination basketball tournament, the NCAA's March Madness, is about as big a revenue driver as there is in TV sports. At a reported $10.8 billion for 14 years of 63 games, it's hauling in something like $12 million in TV revenues per game.

NBA games feature a higher level of play, bigger stars and more of what basketball fans like. Yet they bring in a fraction of that per game. During the lockout, the NBA claimed to have annual revenues -- not just TV revenues, but counting tickets and most everything else -- in the neighborhood of $4 billion. That's based on roughly 1,400 games a year, including playoffs and preseason, which computes to a little less than $3 million a game. In other words, all NBA revenue per game is less than a quarter of what a March Madness game is worth just in TV dollars.

What makes those college games so valuable? It's not that national audiences are clamoring to see Colgate or Winthrop. It's largely because teams like Colgate or Winthrop just might make magic. Which could happen only in a single-elimination tournament.

Of course the NBA should have one.

What kind of tournament?

The NCAA, Olympic and world championship tournaments make a convincing case that the NBA should go all the way. That's right: Replace the hallowed, historic NBA playoffs entirely and crown the league's champion with a new, single-elimination tournament.

Before you pop a vein in your forehead, admit this: Radical though it might be, you'd watch every second. We would, too. There are lots of people like us, which is all it would take for it to be a smashing success.

The seven-game series has had a good run ... but an NCAA-style tournament would blow it out of the water.

The argument against single-elimination tournaments is that they are random. They don't do the best job of determining the better team. But who really cares? People accept NCAA, Olympic and world champions as legitimate -- not to mention Super Bowl winners in football -- even though they are selected by single-elimination.

It's not like the current system really proves the better team anyway. Mathematicians have explained that seven-game series aren't nearly long enough to truly determine the superior competitors. Not with the oddities of injuries and nights when shots just don't fall. A series that genuinely proved a team better would be more than 200 games long, mathematicians say.

Meanwhile, maybe more randomness is precisely what's called for. The best thing about single-elimination tourneys is that exact thing. Who knows who's going to win? Maybe the Grizzlies! When people have no idea what's going to happen, it's impossible to look away, and that's a great thing for TV ratings and ticket sales. The NFL is the major American sport with the most random outcomes (as economists have noted time and again), and it's the most popular.

For sports, as a business, the sacred act is appealing to non-sports fans. A tournament would do that like nothing else the NBA has to offer. It also would drive ticket prices to insane heights, create lasting memories and do a powerful job of helping basketball infiltrate the broader culture.

There's even an argument to be made that by shortening the season and reducing players' workloads, it could open the door to players accepting a further reduced percentage of league revenues, potentially making the league a healthier business.

It also would make it possible, for the first time, for regular people to throw a party to watch a big NBA playoff game, like they do for football.

One problem with a seven-game series is that you never know, with much planning time, when the truly important game will be. Maybe it'll be Game 5. Or 6. Or 7. Never can you say with confidence on Tuesday: "Hey, come over to my house next Sunday, bring the kids, and we'll watch." If you know there's going to be a game, it's early in the series and you don't know it'll be big. If it's late in the series, it'll be big, but you can't count on it even happening.

The NFL has many advantages over the NBA as a business. One is that you can plan for it: Next year's Super Bowl will be on Feb. 3. The nachos will be ready.

What the people want

Replacing the playoffs is likely too radical for 2012 thinking. You'd probably get laughed out of the NBA board of governors. Most people have a hard time thinking that far outside the box.

You'd need an interim step first to get people used to the concept.

And people are clamoring for that.

ESPN.com readers want a tournament. The moment we started soliciting HoopIdeas from readers, various inboxes (email, Google+, Twitter) were hammered with this suggestion. Not one person we've heard from is opposed.

Three of the many suggestions:
  • Orlando Magic Daily’s Philip Rossman-Reich advocates a midseason tournament for cash and glory that would “make some of those slow months matter.” That’s a bit like what goes on in English Premier League soccer, where thanks to a variety of tournaments and cups, even teams low in the league standings have opportunities for glory.
  • Reader Brad Williams from Salt Lake imagines a big tournament, a “Super Bowl-like setting,” with the winner -- imagine it’s held around the All-Star Game -- earning a spot in the playoffs (seeding to be determined later). Or the prize could simply be cash along the lines of the NBA's current playoff bonuses.
  • With the right incentives, Chris Sorensen notes in another letter, a tournament for lottery picks could “ensure that [NBA teams] do not benefit from throwing a whole season away” by assembling a roster of NBA detritus.

If you're looking for a non-sacred part of the NBA season to spice up with something new, the midseason is an obvious candidate.

Meanwhile, likely as a testament to the power of Bill Simmons' idea, plenty of readers have suggested variations of his Entertaining as Hell end-of-season tournament. Ideas for how to implement Bill's EAH tourney range from determining draft order for nonplayoff teams to handing out playoff spots.

But most of all, people submitting HoopIdeas have been making the case that it makes sense because it would be all kinds of exciting.

An idea that has been knocking around

Many a March, when NCAA tournament mania engulfs sports fans, NBA thinkers have long wondered, sometimes in public, about bringing such a tournament to the NBA. A sampling:
  • Heat forward Shane Battier recently told the Heat Index's Tom Haberstroh that he's all for it, saying: "I like -- and I don't know who came up with this idea -- [having] a tournament with all the teams that didn't make the playoffs. You know what? Winner of the tournament wins the first pick."
  • In 2007, David Thorpe suggested replacing the All-Star Game with a single-elimination tournament featuring much of the NBA battling for pride. The same year, Simmons ignited a big national conversation with his Entertaining as Hell tournament, a double-elimination end-of-season tournament. The grand prize would be the last two playoff spots in each conference. Just like March Madness, Simmons loves the potential for a Cinderella run from some unlikely squad, and he also suggests this could address tanking.
  • Then-Nuggets vice president Mark Warkentien -- who later would join the Knicks as director of pro player personnel -- circulated an idea similar to Simmons' to NBA executives in 2009, advocating for a single-elimination tournament in which seeds 8-15 in each conference would play for the final spot in the playoffs.
  • Then writing at AOL, Brett Edwards thought an end-of-season, single-elimination tournament could be used to halt tanking for teams that don’t make the playoffs. You win, you get more ping-pong balls in the lottery.
Why not?

There's more than one good way to capture the excitement of single-elimination hoops. Picture the world's biggest preseason tournament, in which the top 16 teams from the NBA face the top 16 teams from the rest of the globe. With national pride at stake, viewers would be there in droves, and it would be an incredible way to kick off the NBA season -- and who cares if it cuts into the already-too-long 82-game schedule?

Or what about inviting the two finalists from the Euroleague Championships to round out a 32-team NBA tournament, to replace the playoffs, at the end of the year?

Or why not create a series of tournaments throughout the season? Perhaps three would do the trick: The first tourney could culminate on Christmas, with the second in midseason and the third crowning a champ. The incentives along the way would include financial prizes, scheduling perks and positioning within a two-tier system, with teams trying to stay in Tier 1 and avoid Tier 2. This would be similar to but less Draconian than the soccer relegation system, which many, many fans have recommended to HoopIdea. It also would dramatically increase the frequency of meaningful games during the season.

We don't know exactly how it would work best in the NBA, but there's no denying what a thrill it would be to see a whole tournament of Game 7-level scrapping and battling from the best players in the world. Buzzer-beater upsets, improbable runs to glory ... the only wrong answer is not to try anything.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA
Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.

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