Are you ready for a Wild Card round in the NBA? It’s worked in baseball and it’s been used in the NFL for years.
According to a report this weekend by ESPN, the NBA is considering a few dramatic changes to it’s season format, with a “play-in” round as one of the potential ideas in play for the 2021-22 season.
The league has been in talks with the players union and it’s national broadcast partners about these proposals, which include:
Re-seeding the four conference finalists to create more of a Final Four feel. The four remaining teams would be matched up based not on conference affiliation but regular season record. So, for example, last season the NBA Finalists, Warriors and Raptors, would have met in the semifinals, with the Bucks, who had the best record, taking on the Trail Blazers.
A 30-team, in-season tournament, which is, of the three proposals, the most curious of the three. ESPN says an initial plan was to hold it mid-season, but the players union prefers the All-Star break as it is. So it’s possible this European soccer-style tournament would take place early in the season, perhaps before Christmas, which would be weird.
The final idea, to me, is the most intriguing. While the NBA isn’t calling it a “wild card” round, that’s what it essentially would be for four teams playing for the final two seeds in each conference. The plan calls for the 7th and 8th place teams after the regular season ends to play each other to determine the 7th seed. Then the loser of that game would play the winner of the 9th and 10th place teams to determine who gets the 8th seed.
Basically, if you finish 7th or 8th, you get two games to win one to get in, while 9th and 10th have to win two.
It creates a lot of added drama before the playoffs even begin and, most importantly, keeps at least two more markets engaged in a playoff race right to the end. This, combined with the new lottery odds that make it even more of a gamble to tank for lottery positioning, could also motivate more teams to stay in the fight for 10th.
That’s good for the game, good for television ratings and, most importantly, good for the fans.
The Golden State Warriors will go from NBA Finals to the lottery much like the Cleveland Cavaliers did both times LeBron James left. But unlike the Cavs, this expects to be merely a one-time visit to what Donnie Walsh once called the “convention of losers.” By next season, they’ll get back Klay Thompson and have a healthy Steph Curry (who will miss three months with a hand injury) to re-join Draymond Green.
But for now, Steve Kerr and Green exist in an NBA hell that will feel like payback for the past five years in heaven as the most celebrated team in the league. Kerr is now coaching for development of young players such as Eric Paschall and Marquese Chriss, who could be good depth pieces for Golden State’s second episode.
One player to keep an eye on, however, is D’Angelo Russell, whom the Warriors acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Nets. Russell, 23, is currently out with a thumb injury and while it may seem the Warriors would want to keep the young guard to be part of a future backcourt rotation with Curry and Thompson, there is a prevailing belief that Golden State still plans to see what they can get for him before the trade deadline.
Russell in 10 games so far this season is averaging 24.3 points per game for Golden State, which follows a breakout season in Brooklyn in which he averaged 21.1 points per game. But he’s been maligned for his lack of defense.
The team to watch is the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have 31-year-old Jeff Teague in the final year of his contract. Russell and Wolves star Karl Anthony Towns are close friends and the two have talked about teaming up for years.
Let’s go around the league:
Did you hear the story about how the Kings passed on Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft because general manager Vlade Divac knew Doncic’s father quite well and, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, didn’t like what he knew.
“Basically, he didn’t think a whole lot of Luka’s dad,” Woj said on his podcast. Sounds like Vlade had concerns that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. So with the No. 2 pick in the draft, the Kings went with Marvin Bagley III. The Hawks took Doncic at No. 3, but then traded him to the Mavs for the draft rights to Trae Young and a protected 2019 pick.
Now Doncic is a 20-year-old dynamo drawing comparisons to James Harden and even pushing himself into MVP conversations. Truth be told, there were some concerns about Doncic before the draft, but it had nothing to do with his talent. It had to do with his discipline as an athlete — he had a terrible diet — and willingness to get (and keep) himself in elite conditioning to perform in the NBA.
He’s answered that question by putting in an offseason of fitness that has allowed him to have a prolific start to his second season. But hey, Bagley is a pretty good prospect if he can just stay healthy . . . Kyrie Irving’s injury absence due to a shoulder injury will be at least seven games, which means he will miss out on what set up to be the Jilted Tour this week.
The Nets are on a three-game road trip that opened Sunday at Madison Square Garden, where Knicks fans certainly would have let him hear it for choosing Brooklyn over the Mecca. The next stop was Monday in Cleveland, from which Irving demanded a trade in the summer of 2017 (by the way, the Knicks were reportedly on his list of preferred destinations at the time). The last game of the trip is Wednesday at Boston, where he last October told Celtics fans his intention was to re-sign “if you’ll have me” and then off he went to Brooklyn.
Celtics legend Paul Pierce said on ESPN last week that Irving “deserves” to be booed and said it would be “one of the loudest boos in league history.” If so, it’ll have to wait until March 3, which is when the Nets play again in Boston this season . . .
The Clippers on Friday clinched a three-point win over the Rockets by triple-teaming James Harden 30 feet from the basket and Harden was upset with that. “I’ve never seen that in an NBA game where you’ve got really good defenders and someone else running at the top of the key,” he said. “Y’all let me know the last time you’ve seen that.” Let’s not waste our time coming up with names like Michael Jordan, Steph Curry and, well, Wilt Chamberlain, but rather point out that even the Astros don’t have to cheat to know who’s taking the last shot for the Rockets in an iso play. Perhaps a less obvious strategy, with, like, options other than a stubborn iso, would be effective.