In two seasons, the NBA season might look much different than the one we know.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported in November that the NBA and National Basketball Players Association were “engaged in serious discussion” on “sweeping, dramatic changes to the league calendar.”
Friday, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported details of changes the league proposed for the 2021-2022 season.
Cutting four games from the regular season certainly wouldn’t be a problem, especially given the prevalence of injuries to star players — if anything, it seems the league could further reduce the volume of games. The notion of historical records being affected by the issue of a pre-82 game and post-82 game era shouldn’t be a real concern, especially in a sport that tends to value average statistics over accumulation.
The other proposed changes reported don't look quite as sensible.
Many teams around the NBA — the Sixers included — value being at their best for the playoffs, because that’s what it currently makes sense to do. That said, the rewards of matchups against lesser opponents and home-court advantage for winning in the regular season are significant enough to motivate teams to care about results before the postseason.
It seems unlikely that an in-season tournament would meaningfully shift the incentive structure. Besides the financial reward, is there any reason to treat the tournament games differently from typical regular-season games? The honor of getting to say you won the in-season tournament doesn’t appear especially prestigious, especially when compared to winning the actual NBA championship.
The play-in tournament would involve the seventh through 10th seeds, according to The Associated Press’ Tim Reynolds. No. 7 would play No. 8 for the seventh seed, and the loser of that game would face the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup for the eighth seed.
If the season ended today and this proposal had been implemented, the Nets, Hornets, Magic and Pistons would be the play-in tournament teams in the East, while the Thunder, Blazers, Kings and Spurs would be the teams from the West.
In theory, the existence of that tournament would further extend the playoff “bubble,” as well as encourage mediocre teams to push for a spot instead of tank. However, assuming those games would attract tremendous interest is a stretch. And, while the idea of a No. 10 seed earning its way into the playoffs and either scaring or even beating a No. 1 seed sounds great, that’s much less likely in a seven-game NBA series than in the NCAA Tournament.
Reseeding at the conference semifinals is an unnecessary proposal. It would introduce the possibility of Finals matchups between teams in the same conference for the first time, but that wouldn’t be inherently better just because it would be new. The league is fortunate to have decent balance between the conferences at the moment. There’s just not a pressing need to reseed.
For what it’s worth, Reynolds reports that the NBA claims its proposals are backed by fan support.
He writes, “The NBA told teams that a study it commissioned through a third-party company earlier this year showed that 60% of NBA fans want a shorter regular season, that 68% of fans said they are interested in an in-season tournament and 75% were interested in a play-in tournament to decide the playoff field.”
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