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Clippings: The NBA is missing the mark with a midseason tournament

The league is learning the wrong lessons from the play-in.

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The NBA struck gold with the concept and execution of the play-in tournament this year.

With two-thirds of the league playing games beyond the regular season, there wasn’t the usual fire sale at the trade deadline. Teams like the Washington Wizards who ordinarily would have been eliminated from playoff contention weeks before the offseason were instead motivated by the play-in to continue to play hard. That kept the quality of basketball in the final month much higher than in previous years.

The play-in games themselves, at least in the Western Conference, proved to be great theater. The tournament was an inarguable success and should deservedly continue in non-pandemic seasons.

The problem now is that, per ESPN, the NBA wants to introduce more change into the league calendar:

Adam Silver, a proponent of the idea, has gained optimism that the success of the play-in tournament could drive momentum to reengage teams on another (midseason) tournament idea that had been discussed before the pandemic, but never reached a vote of the board of governors, sources said.

As Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the midseason tournament would be an eight-game, single-elimination competition that would shorten the regular season from 82 games to 78. There would be some sort of pool play for qualification.

The theory is that this will add intrigue to middle of the regular season by providing more games with stakes. But the season is too long in of itself. If the NBA added pool play for a midseason tournament, it is very likely that certain players would simply opt out; most barely get through the full 82 games anyway. It could even serve to diminish the regular season if players skipped regular-season games to qualify for the tournament.

The NBA could embed the qualifying games into the regular-season schedule, like the WNBA has done with its Commissioner’s Cup, so as not to add any games. That would increase the importance of regular-season games without further taxing the players. The problem is that there’s such a large hurdle to clear in public opinion. Players seem opposed to the idea from the get-go.

If the point of this midseason tournament is to drum up interest during what is normally a lull in the season, the NBA seems to have misidentified that period. The trade deadline/All-Star Break is a peak in interest; the drop-off occurs before the playoffs, but the league can’t risk playing a tournament then because teams would be gearing up for the postseason.

If the point of the tournament is to add value to the regular season, that won’t be accomplished by adding more games that aren’t part of the regular season. That will divert attention.

The play-in works because it is a route to the postseason. The incentives are clear, and they resonate with players. A midseason tournament doesn’t mean anything to the players right now. It’s only about money, and the pay-off would ultimately ring hollow.

More news for Tuesday:

  • Congrats to Jordan Clarkson for winning Sixth Man of the Year. It was the first time in four years that a Clipper hasn’t won, and the first time in 10 years that a Clipper didn’t get any votes, but it was impossible not to enjoy Clarkson’s award presentation.

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