HoopIdea: An entirely different NBA season

Sandy Weil is the Director of Analytics at Sportsmetricians Consulting, the researcher behind groundbreaking hot hand research and a repeat contributor to HoopIdea.

Let’s face it: the middle of the NBA season can be a dull time.

But it could be much more exciting if the NBA adopted a schedule like they have in the big European soccer leagues.

In those leagues, they carve out space for this additional tournament during their season and everyone competes for both the regular season and tournament titles. Usually, this means multiple competition formats are underway simultaneously. They have the "table" (the regular season: a full slate of home-and-home games) and, going on at the same time, an elimination-based "cup competition" (examples include the FA Cup in the UK and Copa del Rey in Spain).

By adopting a season format modeled after European soccer, the NBA can simultaneously:

  • Reduce the number of games

  • Add the excitement of a mid-season, single-elimination tournament

  • Eliminate the All-Star game while keeping the spectacle of All-Star weekend

  • Boost mid-week TV ratings

  • Increase national television revenue

  • Increase competitiveness by giving owners and players another trophy to compete for.

Let's imagine the following season scenario: The NBA season starts on Christmas Day, with a big slate of games. The regular season consists of a 58-game format where each team plays a home-and-home against everyone else. Then in February, when the season starts to drag a bit, the NBA holds a single-elimination tournament.

Call it the Commissioner's Cup.

Giving the top team in each conference a bye in the first round of the tournament creates the equivalent of a 32-team bracket (five rounds). The NBA holds the first three rounds on Monday and Tuesday nights in February, with Wednesday through Sunday nights reserved for "regular season games."

The culmination of the Commissioner's Cup is a neutral site Final Four-style weekend event in place of the current All-Star Game weekend.

After that tournament, the NBA finishes off the regular season as they do now and begin the playoffs at the same time in April.

In this format, all teams would play between 59 and 63 games. But since the NBA Final Four games replace the All-Star Game, we end up with between 59 and 61 during the same time frame as the current, compressed regular season's 66 games.

This doesn’t mean we’d need to have all those back-to-backs (or back-to-back-to-backs). If the season began on Christmas, a 59- or 60-game season would make for exactly the same game frequency as the normal 82-game season.

There are some certainly details to work out. For instance, how should they seed the teams and how to decide who hosts the early round games?

In the FA Cup, they draw the match-ups at random, including who gets to host the game. That would be one option. Maybe one good middle ground is to randomly draw the match-ups from each region, with coin flips for who gets to host each game -- promoting regional match-ups preserves a bit of the rivalries that would get lost in switching to the 58-game regular season slate.

The most obvious downside is that teams are guaranteed to host only 29 home games each season, instead of the current 41 -- a 30 percent drop in games. Since most teams will host zero or one Commissioner's Cup games, the tournament wouldn’t much offset the deficit in games.

To make it work, the first round of TV contracts that include the single elimination tournament games would need to see a nice bump in revenue because of the meaningful games being played in the middle of February.

If the NBA is talking about shortening the season, why not also add needed excitement to the middle months of the season?