It’s Time for Bold Experimentation in the NBA’s Return

As each day goes by, we appear closer to an NBA return. Over the weekend, the league’s resident bomb-droppers Shams Charania and Adrian Wojnarowksi both reported progress towards the securing of a neutral, safe site for return to play.

While the nuts and bolts still need to be outlined, there are many avenues on the negotiating table. No matter which option is chosen, the return would be a collectively bargained process.

Whatever gets agreed upon will need to make financial sense for the owners and include safety precautions and protections for the players.

On that negotiating table are a few key elements, as noted by Shams and Woj. The first is the locale of a return, with ESPN’s Wide World of Sports campus at Disney in Florida taking center stage. The second is how to return, and that is a much more fluid process.

There are merits and detractions from each scenario, but there’s also no better time to do something outside the box.

From a purely opportunistic standpoint, the league will never get a chance to experiment with a new strategy on a captive audience, (but not be locked into having it be a permanent change), read public reaction and then adjust accordingly. From that standpoint, a return to a normal 16-team playoff bracket with Best of Seven series throughout feels somewhat irresponsible to the long-term viability of many long-debated rule changes.

We know things are gonna be weird, so why not make them purposely a little weirder in the spirit of innovation? Why not use the current inconveniences faced as an opportunity for creating an even better product moving forward?

With that in mind, here are a few logistical decisions both sides should agree upon to return safely, as well as some outside-the-box ideas for how to best take advantage of this experimental phase.

1. Freeze the Draft Order

Apr 5, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past ]Orlando Magic guard D.J. Augustin (14) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The league has to figure out how long its regular season will be if it resumes. Will they call the abridged season over and begin playoff play right away, only requiring 16 of the 30 teams to report?

Will they shorten to 76 games or 72? Is there an opportunity to establish two sites, and have one be an Eastern Conference site and one for the West, thus eliminating intraconference matchups?

Regardless of how this plan shapes, Adam Silver should step in and freeze the current draft odds. Doing so doesn’t guarantee any team a top pick, and the likely results of the rest of the season wouldn’t alter those odds more than a few percentage points.

More than anything, this is a protective measure.

For the players and teams who are eliminated from playoff contention (both in a literal and figurative sense), there is little incentive for them to trot out their top stars and coveted long-term pieces in a high-risk environment. Why should the Atlanta Hawks ask Trae Young to come out of social distancing and put his health at risk—especially in a shortened regular-season return?

The league cannot ask their franchises to mandate players’ return amidst these concerns. The optics of such a decision would be horrible, not to mention the undeniable union objections.

We’ll certainly see some watered-down rosters and lineups on teams with little to gain from winning. And from a league interest standpoint, you don’t need to put teams in a position where a race to the bottom is encouraged.

By eliminating the dreadful “t-word” from creeping into play, the NBA would protect its on-court product. Seems like a win-win.

2. Increase Roster Sizes to Protect Players, Provide Opportunity

Mar 10, 2020; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Gary Trent Jr. (2) dribbles around Phoenix Suns guard Ty Jerome (10) during the second quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Players need to be provided the option to decide if they want to return to work in a high-risk climate.

This isn’t just a business asking their employee to drive 15 miles to work and wear a mask. The paths players must take in order to get to Florida for a reopening require putting them at risk and provide challenges for how long they can responsibly wait before beginning practice and entering a social setting.

In order to protect the players, a push for conditional roster spots should be added. As the union pushes for such a solution, residual effects are only positive.

The league comes off as compassionate and health-conscious, which falls in lockstep with its social missions and prior platforms. The players feel supported to make their health the primary concern while not feeling urged to come back to work. Fringe NBA players may receive an opportunity to showcase their abilities they otherwise would not receive.

Similar to September call-ups in the MLB, a focus on increased roster sizes could collectively change the way the league views G-League interaction in the long-term.

Those players are the ones hit hardest financially due to the short-term and long-term impacts of COVID. It would be nice for the league to keep them in mind.

3. Broadcast Format Experimentation

Jul 15, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Memphis Grizzlies players erupt from the bench after defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Summer League championship game at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

A minor decision in the grand scheme of things, the league also must have a hand in what broadcasts without fans will look like. Woj’s reports on ESPN have mentioned a more casual Summer League-esque format, where games are played continually throughout the day.

The muddy waters between local and national TV deals get dragged to the forefront in such a scheduling nightmare, but there’s no way to reopen without there being a loser in the process. Sorry, West Coast fans.

The NFL Draft was successful due to allowing a peek behind the curtains in its format. The recent charity golf match featuring Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning offered similar access with microphones picking up casual conversations, meaning there was opportunity to hear the participants’ decision-making process as well as continuous interaction between broadcast teams and participants.

No audience will ever be as sports-starved and captive as the one the NBA would inherit. The league should lean into this stylistic change and avoid anything other than low-level piped-in arena music.

Summer League is an enjoyable format for viewers due to the casual conversations on commentary and access to other guests.

I’m envisioning a scenario where coaches are heard more audibly calling a play and commentators discussing its layout. Players on the bench are accessible for interviews during play. Guests join the conversation and enhance the viewer experience, making it more relatable and personable to all fans.

The steady decline in NBA TV ratings for games has been a topic of discussion for years among league executives anyway. A creative presentation and format that engages viewers could be the jolt needed to jump-start a long-term ratings spike.

4. Tournaments, Pools and Playoff Play-Ins, Oh My!

Jun 13, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; The Toronto Raptors celebrates with the Larry O”Brien Trophy after beating the Golden State Warriors in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The meat and potatoes of discussions focus on the structural format of competition, and this is where the experiment really takes shape.

A play-in tournament is being discussed, which would reopen playoff seeding and expand the likelihood of different teams making the playoffs. Another scenario involves pool play, with round-robin gameplay leading to the winner of the group stage advancing—similar to the FIBA World Cup.

Should the league stoop to a new low and solicit advice from a 28-year-old Division III coach without a business degree, here’s what my proposal would include:

  • East and West hosting sites with two separate locations.
  • Remake the schedule to get each team to 72 games with only inter-conference matchups.
  • Play-in Pods for teams 7 through 10 in each conference’s standings after that 72-game level is reached. With the draft order frozen, there’s no downside to competing. They play three games (one against each other team), and the best records and highest point differentials advance to get the final two playoff seeds in each conference.
  • Once the field of 16 is set, first-round matchups are a Best of 5 series.
  • The rest of the postseason proceeds as normal.

It’s a little funky, but there are very few losers in this scenario. The Western Conference race for the 6-seed becomes a major storyline over a few games of the regular season. The idea of avoiding a three-game play-in pod serves as a motivator during the stretch run.

As we currently sit, only four games separate the 3-seed Denver Nuggets and 7-seed Dallas Mavericks. The West would be a wild run for the two weeks of games they play.

Expanding the play-in field to ten teams is a balance between rewarding those who have done well already and incentivizing strong on-court play from lower-level teams.

In the East, the Charlotte Hornets currently sit at 10th at 23-42. All five teams below them in the standings are five games back or fewer. The same can be said in the West, where five teams from 9 to 13 are separated by two-and-a-half games.

If there’s no danger of decreasing their lottery odds, why not go all-in on getting to that point? The competition level rises, and the on-court product theoretically becomes better.

Once the play-in pods occur, the league will get to measure interest in such a format as well as the logistics of how the competitive advantage of rest factors into subsequent rounds of play. In order to prevent too much of an advantage going to teams who rest, the first-round series moving to best of 5 would suffice.

Things breeze by a little quicker, but each game means more and upsets can send storylines spinning even quicker.

The logistical hurdles and practicalities of any return will dictate the manner in which the league returns. Nothing can be unsafe, and every stakeholder must feel protected. But in this uncertainty, the league has been given a unique opportunity to experiment with different formats many have longed for.

Most everyone will agree: we’ll be happy just to have basketball back. But fans will never be as receptive to changes and unorthodox measures as we are right now.

Hopefully, the league uses that license to try something bold.