Thursday, March 19th, was supposed to be the big day.
That’s the day the NCAA tournament kicked into high gear. If you’re a basketball junkie, it’s the best weekend of the year. On Thursday morning, 64 teams begin the tournament with high hopes. Then, with brutal efficiency, the field is whittled down to 16 in four frantic days of competition that always produce several memorable games, legendary upsets, and the images that make up the bulk of the “One Shining Moment” video that closes the championship game broadcast.
The cancellation of the tournament is one of several things we’re going to have to miss this year as we ride out the national crisis. It’s anyone’s guess when “normal” returns but it will and when it does it will be interesting to see on how the various sports leagues decide to deal with a massive disruption of their usually orderly schedules. The NCAA simply cancelled everything and with the transitory nature of their athletes they can’t do much more than prepare for the next season. But the professional leagues will eventually all have to figure out how to best deal with truncated seasons. I’ve got an idea for one league.
The National Basketball Association has informed teams to reserve arena dates through the summer. One theory is that if games are allowed by mid-June, the NBA could finish its regular season (most teams have about 15 games left) in an expedited fashion and then hold playoffs as normal. This would likely take basketball deep into August. Presumably, the 2020-2021 season would still start in late October. The entire thing feels like too much basketball being jammed into too little time and it would be a mistake.
It’s reminiscent of 1999 when a labor dispute led to owners locking out the players for several months. When a new deal was finally struck the season began in February. Teams played 50 games in three months, sometimes playing games on three consecutive nights. Players were out of shape and the basketball was sloppy, but the league was hellbent on getting a representative regular season in followed by the playoffs as usual. In fairness, the NBA was in uncharted water, so they can be excused for the warts that showed up. But out of shape and exhausted players huffing and puffing on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back was not the league’s finest hour.
Now, the league will again presumably face a time crunch when play can resume. But they could learn from 1999 and perhaps try something radically different, a one-time solution to what is hopefully a one-time problem.
Anything you do to try and make 2019-2020 a “regular” NBA season would be riddled with the kind of inconsistencies that have naturally arisen from stopping the season itself at an awkward time and for an awkward length. The season has been irreparably damaged. So let’s take advantage of this crazy situation with a return that would allow for crowning a winner while building goodwill with basketball fans by giving them something they’re going to have to miss this year.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the NBA Cup, a onetime only single elimination bracket tournament involving all 30 teams. Let’s say we’re able to gather for events like this again in June. The NBA Cup could be conducted over two or three weeks. The winner could be declared NBA champion for the year if you want, but I think it better to simply call them the NBA Cup champions and basically acknowledge that 2020 was a different NBA season that required a different way to determine a winner.
Fans would love it, at least as much and maybe more than an attempt to do business as usual. Imagine the TV ratings for games if everyone knew that this was it…one and done. It
would also allow the NBA to fill the void basketball fans feel about the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.
The top two teams, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers, would get first round byes. The remaining 28 teams would square off in first round games determined by seeding that would eliminate 14 teams while allowing 14 others to join the Bucks and Lakers in the sweet sixteen. From there, proceed as normal. Higher seed hosts, the seeding would be done without regard to conference. Wherever you finished when the plug was pulled is where you line up. That means that among other first round match-ups, the Raptors will play the Warriors. Yikes. A nightmare first round match-up for the defending league champs.
Given the number of people who would have to agree on this kind of thing (players, owners, TV network executives, and all of their lawyers) the odds are long that something like this would happen. But it would be a lot of fun.
Speaking of fun, I decided it would be fun to speculate on how such a tournament might play out. So I’ve enlisted one of my oldest Seattle friends to help.
If Rick Turner isn’t the first person I met in Seattle, he’s one of the first five. He was a producer at KJR when I arrived in 1991 and like me was trying to figure out what, exactly, this new beast called “sports talk radio” was going to be. Rick eventually became a basketball coach and has hung his coaching hat in many unique spots. He wrote a book about coaching out of the limelight with the sensational title, “If My Name Was Phil Jackson, Would You Read This?” The book is full of interesting stories and laugh out loud moments.
Rick’s currently the head coach of the Jamaican National basketball team. He’s conducted clinics in Jamaica for years and is wildly popular there. When they decided to get serious about qualifying for the Olympics (their goal is to make the 2024 games in Paris) they hired Rick as the head coach. You can learn more about the Jamaican team right here.
I figured the combination of Rick’s basketball knowledge and his humorous writing style made him the perfect candidate to write speculative game summaries of the 2020 NBA Cup. We’ll post Rick’s evaluations and predictions of all first round games starting on Thursday of this week at www.gasman206.com. By the end of next week, we’ll have our vision of how the tournament played out and who won. Are the Bucks built for the pressure of winning four straight must win games? Or would a more experienced team be better able to make that run? What about teams like Indiana, Golden State, and New Orleans who all recently got superstar players back after injuries? Could one of them become a Cinderella type story?
We could all use a good fairy tale about now.