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Old 05-28-2019, 05:03 PM   #1
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Default Marc Stein: Something Has to Change

The N.B.A. finals start Thursday night — on Canadian soil for the first time. The Champions League final, starring the English Premier League heavyweights Liverpool and Tottenham, is Saturday in Madrid.

Adam Silver will be watching both intently.

Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, bills himself as more soccer student than passionate futbol fan, but he maintains a keen interest in Premier League matters for two key reasons:
It’s the rare league, for starters, that pulls in a bigger global audience than the N.B.A. Another lure: England, as a soccer nation, provides its top teams, like Liverpool and Spurs, an opportunity to play for four major trophies every season as opposed to one.

Silver is more than intrigued.

While acknowledging in a phone interview that a second “cup” for N.B.A. teams to chase every year remains “in the conceptual phase,” Silver said both he and various team executives pose the question regularly: Why does such a long basketball season offer only one true prize?

“It’s incumbent on me to constantly be looking at other organizations and seeing what it is we can do better and learn from them,” Silver said. “In the case of European soccer, I think there is something we can learn from them.

“I also recognize I’m up against some of the traditionalists who say no one will care about that other competition, that other trophy, you create. And my response to that is, ‘Organizations have the ability to create new traditions.’ It won’t happen overnight.”

It will take collectively bargained consent from the players’ union to make actual changes to the N.B.A.’s current format — 82 games in the regular season, followed by two months of playoff games involving 16 of the league’s 30 teams. The league’s main broadcast partners (ESPN and Turner) would be granted considerable input, too.

Silver made it clear, furthermore, that he had yet to make a formal proposal to Michele Roberts, the National Basketball Players Association’s executive director, about ushering in either of the concepts that league officials have been discussing behind the scenes for some time. One is an in-season tournament; the other is a play-in tournament at the end of the regular season to create additional pathways to the playoffs.

But Silver has been throwing out these ideas in various interviews throughout his reign, which began in April 2014 when he succeeded David Stern. In our talk, Silver strongly hinted that he would like to try some new things in the relatively near future if he can secure the requisite buy-in.

“I’m looking at things from a fan standpoint,” Silver said. “I’m looking at how to create the most exciting season and experience, especially in a rapidly changing media market where fans are in essence voting every day whether they want to watch your product.

“Another marker for me is that we’re a few seasons away from our 75th anniversary,” Silver continued, referring to a landmark that the league will commemorate in 2021-22. “I think that milestone gives us a pillar around which to think about the history of the league and experiment — maybe just for the 75th anniversary — with some potential changes.”

Regular readers for years have been subjected to my soccer leanings, which date to my exposure to the English game as a preteen in 1980 who fell in love with that world. Yet I can’t help but admit, even as a so-called “soccer guy,” that my reflex reaction is to be skeptical about this stuff.

It’s ingrained in my own stubborn thinking: Americans will always judge their stars on championship rings and never accept more than one champion per season. Our sporting culture is totally different from Europe’s. The N.B.A. would be skewered if it celebrated a regular-season crown the way Manchester City did after finishing ahead of Liverpool by a single point in the tightest Premier League race ever. Just picture the snark from N.B.A. Twitter if Silver introduces an in-season Stern Cup that culminates with a Final Four at All-Star weekend.

Silver, though, isn’t paying much heed to the naysayers. He is taking cues from his teams. Many of them chafe at the idea of one champion and 29 losers every year and actually revel in achievements, such as division titles and conference championships, that are often played down in the news media as meaningless.

Nor has Silver forgotten that his first season as an N.B.A. employee (1992-93) was also the debut season of the Premier League, after some of England’s biggest clubs led a movement away from the old First Division to rebrand into something bigger, buoyed by a major infusion of television money.

“The most watched league in the world is only 27 years old,” Silver said. “So the idea that the N.B.A. can’t create new traditions over time makes no sense to me.”

Two formats being studied “fairly intensely”

There are many questions to answer before a secondary tournament of any kind will be adopted by the N.B.A. One significant example: Since Silver is adamant that the league “does not want to change the length of the season,” the 82-game schedule may have to condense slightly to add a midseason tournament.

The league would likewise have to determine if a so-called Stern Cup concept — competing for another trophy the way English soccer teams do in the F.A. Cup or League Cup while concurrently playing out their league schedule — makes more sense for the N.B.A. than a play-in tournament. Perhaps more stakeholders will favor a play-in concept that, say, throws the teams with the seventh- to 10th-best records in each conference into a bracket to secure the last two playoff spots in the East and West.

The obvious lure of a play-in tournament, as Silver noted, is that it would give more teams “incentive to compete in the second half of the season.” That would mesh well with Silver’s long-held crusade to discourage teams from late-season tanking to improve draft positioning.

The midseason tournament, by contrast, could help the league address its concerns with the All-Star Game. The N.B.A. continues to treasure its All-Star weekend every February as a tentpole event that brings the entire league together, but it can’t shake fears that the headliner game has outlived its usefulness.

Consider that the 2019 All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C., was down 12 percent in the ratings and 11 percent in viewership compared with the 2018 edition, despite the fact that the N.B.A., in a bid to create more buzz, added a televised selection show in which the co-captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo picked their rosters.

Imagine, then, an All-Star weekend that instead features the semifinals and final of a Champions League-style knockout tournament in addition to the usual 3-point shootout and dunk contest. No more Sunday game with the biggest names in the sport playing at half-speed with no discernible defense.

These are all concepts that the league, according to Silver, is “studying fairly intensely.”
When I asked him if that meant either a midseason tournament or a playoff play-in tournament is inevitable, Silver said it would be premature to describe the outlook in that manner.

“But I think change is inevitable,” Silver said.
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