The NBA season was just 72 games last season, down from 82, but there were six “extra” postseason games – the “play-in tournament” that whittled the seventh through tenth seeds in each conference down to the final two playoff teams.
LeBron James, among others, was staunchly against that concept – as Craig Carton noted, he probably never anticipated playing in it – but when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver joined Craig on Thursday, he had some thoughts on the positive side of what that play-in race did.
“Because you had seven, eight, nine and 10 in the play-in, another thing we didn’t anticipate was a race to get to the sixth seed so you were locked in,” Silver said. “To LeBron’s point, it’s fair, and there are reasons we hadn’t done things historically – maybe you shouldn’t lose a playoff spot on a single game – but the most compelling point at the end of the day was keeping more teams in contention. We knew it would keep more teams in contention, but it turned out better than we could’ve hoped.”
That happened indeed, as Silver noted that as the league entered the final two-week stretch, there were still 24 teams in contention for a playoff spot – but even with the “success” of the venture this year, the league has to collaborate with the NBA Players’ Association on any more changes.
“I do talk to individual players, but at the end of the day, I deal with the NBPA and they make decisions as a unit, and we can’t change anything without their approval,” Silver said. “It was a function of the bubble, but we saw it as an opportunity to bring in something we had discussed pre-COVID .We look at other leagues and see best practices and what we can learn, so we were more focused on the new games themselves and the win or go home mentality.”
That brought Craig to the notion of the NBA trying to create a mid-season tournament, which Silver says is something the league can hopefully model after what the European soccer leagues do with UEFA Champions League and such.
“I think the notion is that fans care about games of consequence. For the other sports, even now, I don’t pay as much attention until they get to the playoffs because the games are more meaningful,” Silver said. “I recognize winning the tournament isn’t going to be the same as winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but you see how the different soccer leagues in Europe operate. It won’t happen overnight, but the thought is we can create something teams care about winning and fans can get behind.”
As the commish joked, the Kings’ Summer League team celebrated like they had won the O’Brien Trophy when they won the summer tournament, so it can happen – but it will be tough to incentivize.
“I am not a big fan of connecting a mid-season tournament result to the playoffs, and we also have to take into account we already have a long season; ideally I’d love to take all the teams, have a break, and have a 30-team tournament – but where do those games come from?” Silver asked. “In European soccer, they have games that count for other competitions, so maybe a Knicks-Bucks game already scheduled becomes a game for this tournament.”
Sounds like a solid idea, but then that has one other potential bug-a-boo: the pesky term “load management” that has become a big thing in the NBA lately, and is a subject the commissioner is “conflicted” about but trying to figure out a better path for.
“Even from a fan standpoint, a lot of fans will agree a player should be sitting out, but then from a business side, they hope it’s not in their game, or say ‘don’t charge me the same amount’,” Silver said. “Right before the pandemic, we started spending more time on the science of player health, because there’s a lot pf pseudoscience around load management; yes, if you’re on the court, you’re more likely to get injured, but it’s also sleep, travel, practice time, those kinds of things. We’re trying to have a better understanding, because I don’t want to be in a position of forcing guys to play games that may compromise their teams. We’re trying to better understand why players get injured.”
As the commish noted, going down to a 72-game season this year not only affected revenue, but also didn’t seem to help the rash of injuries around the league, and there’s understandable superstition around things.
“Michael Jordan believed that if he took a day off he’d get injured, and while it’s not quite analogous, a lot of regular folks who exercise every day feel the same way,” Silver said. “Now, where the science went is that the players shouldn’t even go through their pregame routines to get the appropriate rest. We have to have a better understanding, and it’s something we have to come together with the Players’ Association on.”
And, it’s something Silver has seen evolve over a long period – three decades, in fact, as he began with the NBA back in 1992 as an assistant to David Stern.
“When I first got involved in the league, they didn’t call it load management, but there were certain games where star players suited up, but played reduced minutes,” he said. “For the local fans, that may have been their only chance to see Jordan or Magic or Bird, and they were still satisfied, but now, there’s a much finer line.”
A line so fine, it may be the one that kills any chance of simply seeding the playoffs with the Top 16 teams going 1-16, instead of the current format.
“One of the factors that correlates to injuries is travel – lack of sleep, crossing time zones, etc. – and going one through 16 is going to have heavy travel,” Silver said. “We want to have a fan-first league, and we know we have many who want that, so we’ll continue to study it, but we have to look at it that way.”