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The NBA is innovating.
For much longer than I’ve been alive, there has been but one objective in American professional sports: rings. All other accomplishments are meaningless in the face of a crown; all are varying levels of consolation prizes that earn the same ire as the others that don’t meet the quota of championship or bust.
And I hate it. It makes for wonderfully passionate playoffs, with teams desperate to crawl forward in the format to reach the only and ultimate goal, but it also makes for regular seasons that drag, it penalizes averageness harsher than atrociousness and encourages tanking. It invalidates genuine milestones, like winning a division or reaching a deep round in the playoffs, and turns unbelievable displays into objects of ridicule. It is a simple, binary way to view what I consider a physical expression of human art, and that peg won’t fit in that hole.
This is core to my life-long passion for European soccer and American college sports compared to American pro sports. Soccer clubs in Europe contend in multiple competitions in each season, adding layers of distinction beyond their domestic leagues. In college sports, there is real emphasis placed on reigning supreme in your conference and reaching other markers, like triumphing in a major bowl game in football or reaching the Sweet 16 in basketball. You don’t have to win the biggest prize to do something memorable and impactful in a given season.
In 2021, the WNBA introduced the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup, the first in-season tournament of its kind on this side of the pond that incorporates designated regular season contests into a separate competition of value. In 2023, the NBA will showcase its own version of the same concept with the NBA Cup, ushering in the first deviation from the winner-take-all blueprint major pro sports leagues in this country have abided by since their inceptions.
On every Tuesday and Friday in November (excluding Election Day on Nov. 7), NBA teams will play regular-season contests that double as NBA Cup Group Play competitions. A roulette weighted based on 2022-23 regular season records has already drawn the five-team sets, and each of the Association’s 30 outfits will play four round-robin games against their group mates, two at home and two on the road.
The winners of each of the six groups, plus one wildcard from each conference (yes, we’re still dividing by conference), will advance to the single-elimination Knockout Stage. The semifinals and final of the event will take place in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 and Dec. 9, respectively.
Naturally, an array of detractors have expressed their deep and undying hatred for change of any sort. They hem and haw on how this competition doesn’t matter, unlike the highly-esteemed November NBA regular season games everybody clamors on about that haven’t even been replaced but enhanced. They complain that it’s a gimmick, unlike the time-honored tradition of the All-Star Game and Skills competition. They assert that the NBA is only doing this for the ratings, unlike every other sports organization that has ever existed.
The ratings argument is my favorite. It acknowledges a reality – that the NBA’s current TV contract with Disney and Warner Bros. expires at the end of the 2024-25 campaign, and the introduction of the NBA Cup is one way the league hopes to achieve leverage to balloon its new deal as much as possible. This is hardly strange behavior from a business entity, let alone a sports league. Everyone is always trying to make themselves more valuable. This is capitalism, for better or for worse.
Not all leagues go about it in the same way, though. The NFL added a 17th regular season game that nobody needed, supplementary spots to its postseason to further elongate that, and has stolen home games from select fan bases so people on the other side of the world can have them instead. The NHL is putting more games in outdoor venues not suited for hockey. MLB finally woke up from a 25-year slumber and made major rule changes in an effort to modernize a couple decades late, plus expanded its playoffs, because why not, apparently. MLS now accepts more than 62 percent of its teams into the postseason.
Only the NBA is using transformation to enhance its bottom line. Nothing like the Play-In Tournament exists elsewhere, and it was originally chided, but it has clearly impacted the league for the better in its short existence. Nothing like the NBA Cup exists in comparably-sized leagues in this country – the NBA is putting its neck out there to move sports forward into the meat of this decade and beyond.
Isn’t this what we want? We know leagues want to grow. Isn’t it better that they try to grow through revolution and invention rather than the same old tactics of bloating competitions with as many games as players can physically take and then some? If any leagues behave cynically to attract more attention, it’s all of them but the NBA.
Initially, the NBA Cup will not be taken seriously. With no history to draw back on, a team’s performance in the event is admittedly not very meaningful. The league’s best players won’t be extra motivated by the available prize money, and franchises don’t currently earn anything extra for winning the tournament. As it stands, there is little incentive to care unless you are among the majority of players who don’t pocket millions like it’s nothing.
But what about in five years after there have been a few winners, players have made headlines by going off during a deep run, and the full details of the NBA Cup have been further ironed out? Even if nothing is updated, where is the harm in attributing additional meaning to early regular season games that would have been played anyway?
Imagine if Linsanity happened in the NBA Cup. In February 2012, Jeremy Lin wasn’t just the story of the NBA, he was the story of sports. He captivated audiences and grabbed people who otherwise never tuned into the NBA outside of playoff time. The exact circumstances surrounding Linsanity will probably not be repeated, but players break out in the NBA all the time, or at least have month-long hot streaks. Is it outlandish that this could happen during some November, and that the bonus implications of the NBA Cup would bring more hype than otherwise?
There should be a greater enticement for franchises to care about the NBA Cup. There are a number of ways to do this: pushing the first round of the NBA Draft to 31 picks and awarding the first pick after the lottery to the reigning NBA Cup champion, allotting a certain percentage of cap forgiveness or extra space to the tournament’s winner, or any other advantage that might make teams think twice about underappreciating the event’s affects. However, the reward should not have anything to do with the NBA Playoffs – it would behoove the league to keep that tournament and this tournament as separate as possible, or the NBA Cup will lack substance and uniqueness.
When UEFA created a third Europe-wide competition in 2021 called the Conference League, many in the soccer world looked down their noses. A third-tier competition? Who cares!
In June, West Ham defeated Fiorentina, 2-1, in the Conference League Final, achieving the club’s first major European trophy since 1965 and first trophy at all since 1999. West Ham finished the 2022-23 Premier League season in 14th place, a seven-spot drop from 2021-22, and flirted with relegation late into the year. Watch this and tell me that the club’s season was a failure.
This doesn’t mean I expect the scenes following the NBA Cup championship to emulate these this December, or ever. The situations are not the same. But the NBA Cup, or something of its kind, must begin for these subtleties to settle in at all.
In my ideal world, the NBA Cup becomes an entirely separate competition from the NBA regular season and playoffs. The regular season shrinks, and NBA Cup games are dispersed from October through January until it culminates in the single-elimination stage in February. Beggars can’t be choosers, but a man can dream.
Regardless, this is a huge positive step in the right direction. Its triumph will likely not be immediate, but this is a piece of the much-needed nuance that pro sports within these borders have lacked for a very long time. Inserting a new layer to the NBA’s cake injects color where only black-and-white stood. The definition for success becomes more muddied, and how it’s measured gains granularity.
In a sense, this is an acknowledgment of the real world.
On the surface, this event is merely a business decision made to pump a bottom line shortly prior to contract negotiations, and I am not pretending that the NBA has made this change with the altruistic goal of reshaping how people view success. But it doesn’t need to be for it to happen. As the NBA Cup elevates in prominence, the understanding that there is much more than the final prize will seep unconsciously to those paying attention.
It has been seven years since the Golden State Warriors set the NBA regular season record for wins with 73 and came four points shy of their second-straight league championship. The mockery made of their blown 3-1 series lead in the 2016 NBA Finals has subsided over time, largely because the Warriors have won three titles since that collapse, but it’s still there, and it was at its fever pitch in the year after it happened.
In the minds of many NBA fans, that team was a failure. It outdid the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls across 82 games. It blasted the previously best-ever openings in the league’s history by beginning 24-0, matching just the 1884 St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association, an old professional baseball league, as the only major American pro sports teams to start a campaign at least 20-0. It overcame a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against an Oklahoma City Thunder team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It housed that season’s Coach of the Year and MVP. It required duel unbelievable performances from perhaps the greatest player of all time and from one of the best guards of his generation for the Cleveland Cavaliers to narrowly outdo the Warriors in seven games.
But that team was a failure?
And the answer is: kind of, given the context. In its now-previous form, the NBA was two-dimensional. You could go 82-0 or below-.500 in the regular season, but the success of your year would solely come down to getting those 16 Ws in the playoffs. The installation of the NBA Cup doesn’t erase that entirely, and certainly won’t immediately, but it provides a new plane of operation that didn’t exist before.
That NBA is gone. Sure, it won’t go in an instant. The NBA Cup has to generate juice first – there needs to be reasons for fans and franchises to care about this new dimension. But they’ll come, and so too will the other benefits of introducing extra competition to what already was.
If nothing else, it is abundantly clear that the NBA has its eyes set forward, not back.
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