Monday night, the Clippers traveled to Brooklyn to play the Nets in a contest that meant next to nothing in the grand scheme of the 82-game season.
Blake Griffin opted to sit on the bench for the game, and that didn't stop the Clippers from opening up an early lead on the lowly Nets, only to sleepwalk through the fourth quarter and find themselves in not one, but two overtimes.
It was a bizarre contest and the Nets' win proved to be the most engaging game of the week. Not that anyone showed up to watch it — why would they? — or had any reason to tune in until the final minutes, if they had NBA League Pass.
Monday proved that not every seemingly meaningless game in the NBA regular season lives up to that lowly billing, but the NBA clearly has a competitive-balance issue that needs to be addressed.
We know the teams that are going to contend for the title and the teams that are going for more balls in the lottery at the beginning of the season. Both groups — there are a dozen members, a recent low-water mark, this season — want to fast-forward to the summer.
The rest of the teams are looking for gate revenue for 41 home games and maybe a chance to surprise someone. Is that enough to get excited? Do we need 82 games of mediocrity?
The NBA playoffs are amazing — wouldn't it be great if we could get some more of that action during the regular season?
In soccer leagues around the world, teams play in mid-season tournaments. In the U.S., teams play in the Open Cup and in England, there's the fabled F.A. Cup and the not-so-fabled but still important EPL Cup. Both are open tournaments that take place mid-week and give teams that have no chance to win their league's championship a chance to put their efforts forward into winning some silverware.
In those tournaments, teams from all leagues participate, but given the clear segmentation in the NBA, the Association's tournament — let's call it the Commissioner's Cup — would be limited to the 30 teams in the league.
It's a big, bold, radical idea that was floated by Adam Silver in 2014 and 2015 but hasn't seen discussed much in public since.
We're here to bang the drum again.
Here's why the NBA should start an in-season cup tournament:
It would give the star players what they want — a shorter regular season
LeBron James wants a shorter regular season. So does Dirk Nowitzki. The NBA Players' Association is listening to its members and is all about shortening the regular season.
But that's unlikely to happen because the owners would never give up the revenue. Too many owners need the box-office money that comes from 41 games.
But that doesn't mean that the 82-game regular season isn't deluded and untenable.
It's too much of a grind for playoff teams, and that hurts the NBA's playoffs.
One of the Warriors' biggest regrets at the end of last season? Trying to win 73 games in the regular season — one of the greatest feats in sports history.
It didn't matter — they didn't get the ring. That record will stand forever because Golden State became a cautionary tale.
So, good teams are going to rest their good players more and more often in the regular season — following the Spurs' lead (smart idea) and diluted the regular-season product, making it a complicated preamble for the incredible NBA playoffs.
If the NBPA wins and gets a shortened regular season in the next collective bargaining agreement, holding a midseason tournament would be an effective way to help the owners who would be hurt by the loss of home games.
The teams that have title aspirations and want to rest their stars would still be able to rest them and maintain the regular season's integrity. The games would certainly be better if players were better rested (no back-to-backs, no four-in-fives) and that would improve the postseason, in turn.
Everyone else will have a chance to win some games they might not win — they'll be putting stronger teams on the court — and have a chance to drum up some excitement for what is typically a pretty mediocre or bad squad.
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It would give non-title contenders a chance to win something
If the Cavs hold out LeBron and the Warriors hold out Curry and Durant, the field in the NBA opens up considerably.
That's what happens in midseason tournaments in the UK. Chelsea and Manchester City are loaded with young depth on a seemingly endless roster, so they do well in the tournaments, but they don't try all that hard to win them. But mid-table teams who can't win the league and lower-level squads — they're all-in on the cups. They want to win silverware.
The NBA won't have the same depth issues — it'll come down to who wants it more with team selection. Think about the Minnesota Timberwolves last year: they're a team on the rise and they could have put their efforts into winning the cup to prove that they're a team that can win in the NBA, even if the level of play is slightly below the playoffs.
You thought the Wolves were already hyped, imagine if they had won something last year.
Or the 76ers: Fans were souring on The Process last year, but the franchise wanted to tank the regular season to get that No. 1 pick. If they tried to be competitive in the cup, they would have given their fans something to cheer for and not jeopardized their lottery position.
And teams like the Hawks, who need to put butts in the seats, or the Bucks, who had limited title hopes but needed to create excitement around their future, could go all-in and win a title, even if it's a B-plus trophy.
The Warriors and Cavs and Spurs can tank the tournament by putting forward a half-effort — not unlike many current regular-season games — but the teams that won those contests against them wouldn't be getting a victory without reward.
It would improve the D-League
The NBA is making a D-League push and this is a great way to do it.
If teams want to rest players for the tournament, they're going to need guys to replace them on the roster.
The easiest way to do it is through the D-League, not 10-day contracts, and that should force the quality of the league to rise significantly as NBA franchises will have to compete with European teams to keep fringe NBA talent stateside and bring developing European players overseas to play in the minor league.
If the teams get good enough, they could even enter the cup down the line.
It would revive regional rivalries
The NBA is almost certainly going to become division-free after the next CBA because the league is effectively already there.
No one cares about winning a division — it's a meaningless accomplishment.
But if the Commissioner's Cup started with a regional group stage — a home-and-home against each team's four closest teams in an effort to eliminate the last team in each group and create a 24-team tournament — those regional rivalries might heat up. Especially with theoretically equal squads.
Trophies, even new ones, matter
Whether those 24 other teams play in a single-elimination tournament or have some best-of-3 knockout round, you would be adding value to once-meaningless regular-season contests. Nuggets-Nets could mean something. Rivalries would start up, young teams would build confidence, and tanking teams looking for the draft pick wouldn't have to tank so hard. They'd be allowed to try to win for once.
There are 25 or 26 teams that have next-to no shot of winning the title this year, but anything could happen in a midseason tournament in a league where the expected coming to pass is the norm for all but a few critical June games a year.
The NBA would be better off if there should be more opportunities for more teams to have something to show for their year's efforts at the end of a season.
It'll take some dramatic changes and a few concessions, but a soccer-style cup tournament would improve the quality of play in the regular season, mitigate the loss of revenue from a shorter schedule (aren't a few full-house, competitive games that mean something better than 10 half-empty bowls for meaningless contests?), and increase the level of competition around the Association.