The Loop

The NBA Cup is both a terrific idea and a very hard sell

November 25, 2019

You might have seen the news Saturday that the NBA and the NBA Players Association are having serious talks about several big changes that could be implemented by the 2021-'22 season. There's playoff reseeding (from the semis onward), a mini-tournament for low playoff seeds that could mitigate tanking, and a slight shortening of the regular-season schedule, but what I found most interesting was a proposal for a season-long tournament involving all 30 teams that would culminate with its own title. In essence, this is a cup competition modeled on European soccer, and for the purposes of this article I'll refer to it as the NBA Cup, though no official name has been chosen.

The details are fairly straightforward—every team would compete in a divisional round in which the games count simultaneously for the cup and the regular season. Each division winner—there would be six, with five teams in each division—would advance to the quarterfinals along with the two best second-place teams. From there, the remaining teams would compete in a single-elimination tournament played around mid-December.

In most European soccer systems (and indeed, across the world) there is both a "national" or "association" cup competition open to professional teams across the country, and a typically less prestigious "league cup" restricted to the teams in the top domestic divisions. To use England as an example, there is the Football Association (F.A.) Cup and the Carabao (league) Cup. Teams compete over the course of their regular seasons, with the best teams entering later in the competition, and the cup finals are played in May and February, respectively, at Wembley. Though many winners have come from England's "big six," there is a far better chance for an underdog to make a deep run, and even to win, than in the year-long league competitions where money and talent inevitably win the day. But the really important point to make is that these cups, especially the national cups, are enormous prizes. Fans care, players care, management cares—a lot.

It's a great idea for the NBA, and I absolutely love the creative thinking. It could heighten interest in the regular season significantly. There are, however, two enormous obstacles. Namely:

1. How do you make American fans care? We're not conditioned to understand cup competitions, or even to value regular-season greatness. It distinguishes us from our international peers—for us, playoffs have an outsized importance, dwarfing everything else (sometimes, as in baseball, to the point of absurdity). Asking your average NBA fan to put stock in a cup competition that ends in mid-December and whose early stages will come in the the first two months of the season is not easy, and whether those fans can be taught to care is an open question.

2. How do you make the coaches and players care? Part of the answer here is "compensation," which is well and good, but as NBA officials acknowledged in the ESPN story, even that is no guarantee of an "enthusiastic commitment." All it would take is a curmudgeon like Popovich to rest his stars in a critical cup game to undermine the whole concept.

Excitement tempered by caution seems to be the correct reaction here. The concept is wonderful, but buy-in is far from certain. I wish the tournament ended in February, after the Super Bowl, or on Christmas Day (the NBA is reluctant for scheduling reasons), and I think it might be a big mistake to hold the cup finals before most Americans are even focused on the NBA. Still, it's nice to see a league trying out new and exciting ideas, and they're going in with both eyes open, understanding that it will take "time and tradition" to make it stick. I hope they succeed.

Heartbreaking Franchise of the Week: The Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets might be the poster children for franchise hopelessness, combining poor management with bad team-building combined with a boring city in a league where that's a killer, because the "cool" cities attract all the stars. Even the godforsaken Knicks have more hope, with NYC and historic MSG just waiting to prove their recruiting value when James Dolan stops bungling everything. The Hornets have none of that, and they can't even tank well enough to get a franchise-altering star they can keep around for a few years.

On top of that grim reality, watch what happened to them Saturday night against the Bulls, after leading by five with eight seconds—yes, eight seconds—remaining:

Here's the call from the Bulls announcers:

The drive home on I-85, the world's worst highway, had to be particularly miserable that night.

The "Sure, Get Your Kicks Where You Can" Fan Base of the Week: Cleveland Browns

Who are we to tell the people of Cleveland, who voluntarily root for the Browns, how they should enjoy themselves on a Sunday? Nobody, that's who, which is why I won't pass judgment on the fans who decided to re-create the helmet bashing of Mason Rudolph (perpetrated by their own team, of course) using a Steelers helmet, a blindfolded girl, and a piñata:

This is what happens, apparently, when the LeBron bubble bursts for the second time. Madness and ennui unleashed. Next time they play Chicago, there may be actual bear-baiting.

The Farce of the Week: Colin Kaepernick's Workouts

Let's be clear: I have no idea how Colin Kaepernick fared when he worked out for seven teams at a high school in Georgia last week. He could have been great, could have been terrible, could have been mediocre. But the conclusion to the whole episode—that he hasn't gotten a call from any of those seven teams—could not be more predictable. It's an outcome that would have been the same no matter how he did.

The fundamental reality of Kaepernick's situation hasn't changed—he spoke out while playing in a conservative league, he was punished severely for it, and even those NFL teams that desperately need a quarterback have long considered him political poison. A few years have passed, but nothing about the political reality has changed—to take him in 2019, you'd still have to bear the brunt of angry fans who think Kaepernick personally insulted the troops. It sounds absurd to say, but there's an extremely good chance that the president himself would tweet something negative about your franchise. All of it could lead to god-knows-what: lower attendance, a TV boycott, etc.

The NFL is not a progressive league in the best of times, and this is not the best of times—there's no chance any team will take a risk of that magnitude. Which is business, I guess, but then ... why even hold the workouts? Was it a PR move by the league to pretend it's giving him an honest shot? An act of optimism on the part of a few teams who figured they could see what they could see and confront the actual choice later? Whatever the case, it's a sad farce, and in the absence of a real chance for Kaepernick, it should never have happened.