How to Structure NBA’s Proposed Mid-Season Tournament

Let’s take inventory of where the National Basketball Association is as a whole.

Television ratings are in decline, despite an all-time high in interest and social media traffic. Television deals are the top form of revenue that must be protected, regardless of overall industry trends with cord-cutters. In an instant gratification era, an 82 game season is long and viewers may be fatiguing. Adam Silver and his competition committees are toying with several ideas to revitalize intrigue on a game-to-game basis.

One such idea tossed around has been an in-season tournament, with dozens of iterations of such an idea making the rounds. The essential criticism of a “minor” tournament is this: What stakes would make the players care?

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported this week of a potential $1 million-per-player payout to the winning team. He also mentioned the concerns and flaws with such a structure, where star players may prefer the rest and franchises worry about the financial concern of losing several guaranteed games per year. Any proposal needs two-thirds of all owners’ votes to be ratified and without strong backing from the NBAPA, a proposal likely won’t sway any voters.

It’s clear to see this is going to be a divisive idea no matter what gets officially proposed:

Nonetheless, Bill Simmons of The Ringer came up with one of his predictably outside-the-box strategies for a mid-season tournament, and he had some interesting thoughts:

Whether it’s a financial reward for the players, draft picks for the teams or any combination thereof, things get messy in a winner-take-all method that isn’t carefully designed. Draft pick motivations do little to protect the players and may reinforce the current issue that the offseason is more intriguing from a fan perspective than the season itself.

If that’s the problem they are seeking to solve, including draft picks in the motivation is a serious misstep.

Luckily, an epiphany hit me in the middle of the night. What if, instead of making the tournament a standalone event, we tied in success with postseason seeding? That way, every team would have the motivation to succeed, and the tournament wouldn’t just be a mid-season derby for the sake of raising revenue.

So here’s the Adam Spinella idea for a mid-season tournament, reshaping of the league schedule and the proper way to incentivize teams to care:

The Schedule

Dec 11, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) controls a ball as LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) tries to defend during the first quarter at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

82 games is a lot. Owners don’t want to budge from that number, and adding more games for a mid-season tournament is greedy and unfair to the players. How would we navigate those choppy waters to add a midseason tournament, keep both parties happy and preserve the historical significance of stat-chasing that many historians wouldn’t want to sacrifice?

Change the season from 82 games to 76, with the schedule as follows:

  • 30 Teams total; 15 in each conference. Conferences are made up of three divisions of five.
  • Play each team in your own division four times: a total of 16 games.
  • Play each non-division conference opponent three times: a total of 30 games
  • Play each team from the other conference twice: a total of 30 games

We complain about divisions not meaning much in the NBA anymore. Playing division foes more frequently than others would make those games matter more, a nice benefit of the schedule shift. While teams already face those in their division four times each, the elimination of playing other non-divisional foes on four occasions makes the division matchups stand out a little more.

Dropping six games for each team, only to replace it with an in-season tournament, would be negotiable for both sides. Players don’t feel overworked and have a potential break in January. Owners would need to see a large enough bump from the television and the neutral-site deals in order for the pot to be sweet enough to lose three home games. Raising ticket prices, offering week-long packages and minimizing overhead costs by producing back-to-back games in the same arena help chip away at the bottom line.

But when should the league hold this mid-season tournament? This proposal is built around when to have the tourney’s championship game, a date that is synonymous with history and circumstance within NBA circles: MLK Day. That Monday in January would be championship day for the tournament. Thus, the games for the tournament begin the Sunday before MLK Day, or eight days prior.

The last day of standard regular-season games is on a Friday. Saturday is a travel day, and the first-round begins on Sunday. On the back-end, after championship Monday on MLK Day, the standard schedule would resume on Wednesday. Thus league doesn’t lose much from their prized national television and schedule days of Wednesday and Friday.

The tournament is also going to be hosted at neutral sites, more due to logistics and market expansion than anything else. Building a regular-season schedule is difficult; there are so many venue and arena demands to meet. Between cross-listing with NHL teams and concerts also booked at the venue, a mid-season tournament does not leave enough time to build a balanced schedule for the games while taking all factors into account. Neutral sites are a necessity.

What a great way to involve new, potential NBA markets! Sending a group of teams from the west to Seattle would be great fun. No players will say no to going to Las Vegas or Tampa in January. There’s a ton of ways to work a March Madness-esque neutral site into the mix.

The Bracket and perpetuating conference rivalries

Mar 10, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) fight for a loose ball during the first quarter at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Most iterations of this mid-season tournament merge both Eastern and Western Conferences. After listening to The Lowe Post podcast last week where Zach Lowe discussed tournament ideas, my sentiment is that there’s value in keeping them separate. Think of this mid-season event as essentially two tournaments: an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference.

This fits from a scheduling perspective as well: Games can be staggered with East and West Coast time zones seeing accommodation. From a rivalry perspective, this structure would perpetuate current rivalries and build intrigue for the Eastern and Western Conference Playoffs. At this point, the NBA Finals sells itself, but generating more audience buy-in for the lead-up to The Finals is paramount.

A two-conference tournament system also preserves the intrigue and mystique of an East vs. West possibility between best teams that can only take place in June. Coming off the heels of a thrilling game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers on TNT Thursday night, the NBA should be hoping to save these matchups for the rarest of occasions. Give a quick tease twice a year, then let the top in each conference square off in the Finals.

Seeding would officially be set on the Friday before the tournament. This year, with Martin Luther King Day on January 20th, the last day of games would be the 10th. That happens to be after most teams play their 38th regular-season game—exactly the half-way point.

The top seed in each conference would receive a first-round bye. Seeds 2 through 15 would be placed in a single-elimination bracket-style pod based on winning percentage, then head-to-head tiebreakers. Thus, the bracket takes form exactly like a March Madness region would.

Here is how the hypothetical schedule would look on a calendar, with either four or five games over the first few days:

Essentially, there are two double-headers on Sunday, then five games on Monday and Tuesday for the first round. Wednesday and Thursday see four games, two on Friday, two on Saturday, and the championships in the East and West are on MLK Day. The bulk of games (Monday and Tuesday) are less-desired matchups. Once Wednesday arrives, pretty much everything is or could be a high-profile matchup.

Lose in the first round? No problem. Spin it into a positive and take a week off. Get practice and get ready for the second half of the year. Give the general managers and front office time to synchronize their plans and direction.

The Incentives

There are two types of motivation necessary for an event of this nature to succeed: Why should we win the tournament, and why should we push to gain seeding for the tournament?

Let’s deal with the latter first. By giving the top seed in each conference a bye, they receive an extra day off. The first-round games in the tournament would take place Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The top seed would be off from Friday until either Wednesday or Thursday, a huge reprieve for their players.

Earlier, we mentioned neutral sites. Let’s say there are four of them. The 2-seed in each conference would get their first pick of where to go. While the top seed gets the rest, the second seed chooses their location for their first two games, giving them some choice in the matter.

The games also would count towards a franchise’s overall record and winning percentage, which means they’d count toward the playoff picture. That way, going 3-1 and losing in the tournament finals at least gives you a boost in the standings, as opposed to a winner-take-all format.

No team benefits from this more than the fringe playoff franchises struggling for positioning. In a 7 vs. 10 matchup, for example, the winner of that game essentially gets a win thrown onto their record, which can have massive tiebreaker ramifications come April.

As for what’s at stake in incentivizing teams to try and win the whole darn thing, there are two key prizes that go to the winners:

First is an automatic berth to the playoffs. The winner of the Eastern Conference tournament clinches a berth, but seeding is not determined. Let’s say, as a hypothetical, the Charlotte Hornets win the tournament but finish with the tenth-best record in East. Due to the tournament win, they qualify for the playoffs but will receive the eighth seed since they boast the worst record of all playoff qualifiers.

Dec 22, 2019; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) controls the ball between Boston Celtics forward Daniel Theis (27) and guard Kemba Walker (8) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The top seven records would also qualify. As for the team with the eighth-best record, that puts even more emphasis on having success in the tournament.

What we failed to mentioned earlier about motivation comes down to the teams at the bottom of the standings. Sure, they could receive an automatic berth to the postseason, but for teams looking to rebuild or that value a high draft pick, making the playoffs and taking themselves out of the lottery (in the current system) could seem counterintuitive.

That’s why the draft lottery odds would remain unchanged, regardless of the tournament: They’d be based on overall record, not on postseason qualification. So the Hornets could finish with the tenth-best record in the East and the eighth-worst overall, then still retain the eighth-best lottery odds. In order to make this work, we would then need 15 teams in the lottery—the eighth-best record in the conference would also need a few ping pong balls since they missed the playoffs.

The second incentive is tailored for the “upper middle class” of teams that are safely in the playoff hunt but may not be able to reach the top overall seed. They are teams that wouldn’t necessarily care about getting an automatic qualifier and might consider resting some of their top guys instead of pushing for a title. That incentive is what I’m calling the “Race to 55.”

That is, if the tournament champion wins 55 games total (regular season and tournament), they clinch home-court advantage during their conference playoffs. The number threshold of 50 may seem low, but it’s important to remember there are six fewer guaranteed games for each team. A tournament champion would go 4-0 in the tourney, meaning they’d have to go 51-25 or win 67 percent of their games outside the tournament to unlock this designation. Beyond that, most other teams they’re competing with play fewer games, so they are likely leapfrogging fewer teams to vault into that designation.

Seeding will also be unchanged. So if the Miami Heat win the tournament and win 55 games but have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, they’ll host the six-seed in the first round of the playoffs. If they win, they’ll have home court over the two-seed in the next round.

Dec 18, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) shoots against Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This model disproportionately hurts the team that finishes with the top record in each conference, so let’s tie it back to the incentive for a moment. If that top-record team wins the tournament, they don’t have to worry about losing an advantage. But the 55-win mark is not as easy to reach as you may think.

Winning 55 of 80 games (i.e. 76 regular season games plus the four tournament victories) requires a winning percentage of 68.75 percent. Only three teams reached that mark in 2019, three in 2018, and two in 2017. Such a threshold would really matter if we’re splitting hairs between two elite teams in their conference.

Take this year’s Eastern Conference into consideration. As of December 21st, six teams have a winning percentage of 66.7 or higher. Winning the tournament and receiving a 4-0 stretch for one of those teams would propel them higher in the standings but also give them an incentive to track down the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. If the Toronto Raptors are 26-10 at the start of the tournament and win it, they’d only need to go 25-11 to topple Milwaukee, which is certainly attainable.

Just to recap the incentive here, divide teams into three tiers: sure-fire playoff teams, bubble teams and non-playoff qualifiers. The non-playoff teams get the chance for a free playoff berth without worrying about winning a certain amount of games during the whole season or losing their standing in the lottery. Bubble teams get the chance to punch their ticket in January if they play well at the right time. Sure-fire qualifiers will earn four wins and the chance to snatch homecourt advantage throughout the conference playoffs. As Michael Scott would say, it’s a win-win-win.

So many proposals, including Simmons’, involve either a monetary reward or draft pick compensation while aiming to strike a balance between rewarding the players and the organization. All of those factors get messy. Instead, let’s continue to make winning more valuable. Players of all teams can get behind that.

I’m partial to calling this the Martin Luther King Tournament, but call it whatever you want. That’s the easy part. The tough part is already done here: laying out a way to structure and incentivize each team to win and try their hardest, no matter what position they’re in on the standings.

Just for fun, let’s see how this would look as of the standings on December 21st:

Win, win, win.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 21, 2019.