Constructing a Tournament for the NBA's Playoff Wallflowers
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
The 14 teams that aren't participating in the NBA postseason aren't doing anything else at the moment, so let's have them play in a tournament specifically designed to honor the league's best lottery team.
After all, who doesn't want more basketball?
By putting together this tournament, we get to see players audition for more money in free agency, fight to earn spots in the lineup for next season and play more quality basketball. Plus, we have the opportunity to see what happens when these 14 teams aren't trying to tank for better odds in the eventual draft lottery.
Further still, there's going to be an incentive for playing well.
Only good can come of this, so let's see how it should be set up.
Format of the Tournament
Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Bobcats would be left playing on the first day.
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Although 14 is an even number, it's not exactly one that fits in with the traditional March Madness style of brackets we've come to associate with most tournaments. Those fields are normally comprised of either two, four, eight, 16, 32, 64 or even 128 teams.
As a result, we're going to have to think out of the box here, giving the top four seeds double-byes and seeds No. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 single-byes.
Here's a day-by-day breakdown of the matchups that would take place:
This is the day for bottom-feeders, as the four worst teams in the NBA are the only ones in action. The No. 11 and 14 seeds square off (Game 1), while the No. 12 and 13 seeds battle it out for "supremacy" (Game 2).
These games also have to take place somewhere, and it doesn't seem right for any lottery-bound team to earn home-court advantage. For that reason, as well as the inherent motivation and plot twists that would come with the following decision, this entire tournament will be staged in a neutral city.
For now, let's say Las Vegas. Which player wouldn't want to go spend a week on the Strip, playing a few games while enjoying all that the city has to offer?
The winners of our first-round matchups are back in action.
While Game 1's winner takes on the No. 6 seed, the squad emerging victorious from Game 2 gets to play the No. 5 seed. Additionally, the seventh- and 10th-best lottery teams will play each other while the traditional No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup takes place.
Day 3 and Beyond
If the bracket is entirely chalk, meaning that each of the favorites advance, Day 3 will see the following matchups: No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 4 vs. No. 5, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 2 vs. No. 7.
From there, the tournament proceeds in typical fashion until a victor is crowned.
There are no days off for teams that are still alive. There are no more byes. You win or you go home, and if you keep winning, you just might get a prize.
I'm sure Tyrone Corbin would love a better draft pick.
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While it's clear that this tournament would entertain plenty of fans, there's also the issue of motivating the players to perform. Their season is over, and they can't win a championship. So why should they try?
Love of the game aside, let's provide a bit of an incentive to the winners of the matchups.
Currently, the NBA draft is set up so that the lottery teams each have certain odds of getting the No. 1 pick. You can move up in the draft order into the top three even if you didn't have one of the three worst records in the league.
I'm not suggesting that we change that.
However, the second round's order is fixed based on record. That's what we can mess with.
Instead of just handing the 31st pick of the draft to the team with the worst record, let's give it to the winner of our tournament. The runner-up would receive the 32nd pick, but then things get a little trickier.
According to this format, the 33rd and 34th picks would be given to the teams who lost in the semifinal games. Asking them to play each other in a de facto third-place game, one with the 33rd pick on the line, wouldn't be too difficult, but that would set an unfortunate precedent for later on.
What do you do when four picks are owed in each of the previous two rounds? Do you have all the losers play yet another tournament? Nope, that's too complicated.
Once the tiers of losers are established (two in the semifinals, four in the quarterfinals, four in the second round and two in the opening round), that's when you sort things by regular-season record. The best pick in each tier is given to the eligible team with the worst record.
So here's what we're looking at, in terms of who wins what pick:
Tournament Champion: No. 31
Tournament Runner-Up: No. 32
Semifinal Losers: Nos. 33 and 34
Quarterfinal Losers: Nos. 35-38
Second-Round Losers: Nos. 39-42
First-Round Losers: Nos. 43 and 44
When you look at the numbers, the differences between those 14 picks aren't all that significant. The outcome of this tournament wouldn't drastically impact the future of the league. And that's good, since this is more for entertainment than anything else.
According to my research, the No. 31 pick should be expected to earn 5.54 win shares over the first four years of his career*. The No. 44 pick is expected to earn 4.15, so we're only looking at a 1.39-win-share difference over four years.
To put that in perspective, DeShawn Stevenson needed just 56 games to beat that mark for the Atlanta Hawks. It's a fairly insignificant difference.
However, it's a tangible reward for good play, and that should motive the players. That's what I'm after by incentivizing this tournament.
*Win shares are used because they're the best overall measure of play that takes volume into account. I looked at the first four years of a career because that's the maximum length of a rookie contract. For a much more fulsome explanation, check out this article. Slight modifications and updates have been made to the formula from that link, but the theory behind it still remains valid.
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What better way to provide an example of the tournament format than to demonstrate how this year's version would go?
Let's begin with the opening round and work our way all the way to the champion and the resulting draft-pick swaps.
No. 11 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 14 Orlando Magic
It seems like both of these teams went into full-on tank mode during the end of the 2012-13 season, but the Orlando Magic have more talent on the roster.
Throughout his second professional year, Nikola Vucevic started to emerge as one of the better 7-footers in the league, and Tobias Harris' end-of-the-season breakout went nearly unnoticed. He's exactly the type of player that this tournament would glorify, as far more fans would tune into this game than a meaningless one between the two teams during the regular season.
Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat are solid players, but Orlando is starting the tourney off with an upset.
No. 12 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 13. Charlotte Bobcats
Who wouldn't want to watch Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker when the game actually matters?
Cleveland's talent level is vastly superior to Charlotte's, especially because the Cavaliers still win the point-guard battle. Kemba Walker is the best player on the Bobcats, but it's tough to envision him actually outplaying Uncle Drew.
Plus, Tristan Thompson is going to manhandle whoever Charlotte uses in an attempt to slow him down.
There's no upset here.
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No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 12. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers' cinderella run comes to an end in the second round, as Kyrie Irving runs into another point guard who can keep up with him in the scoring column. Damian Lillard might not be able to defend Irving, but the current Rookie of the Year can at least match the former ROY's offensive output.
Cleveland's problems lie at the other positions. Who's going to stop LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum?
There's just too large a talent gap, and the 5-12 matchup doesn't look as ripe for an upset as it usually does in March Madness.
No. 6 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 11 Orlando Magic
Let's just go ahead and knock the other first-round winner out right away.
While the Orlando Magic are better than their record would indicate, the Minnesota Timberwolves are, too. Injuries caused the downfall of the sixth seed during the regular season, and there's still a lot of talent on the roster.
Expect Ricky Rubio to work plenty of magic as he knocks the Magic out of the postseason. Sorry, I had to do it.
No. 7 Detroit Pistons vs. No. 10 New Orleans Hornets
At this point in the year, Anthony Davis is no longer a rookie. For that matter, Andre Drummond isn't either.
In this battle of first-year bigs, the Unibrow has the upper hand, and his New Orleans Hornets are pulling off the upset. Detroit may have won two more games in the regular season, but the Pistons played in the Eastern Conference while NOLA struggled against the West.
Greg Monroe is going to have himself a field day, but so too are Eric Gordon and the incredibly underrated Greivis Vasquez.
No. 8 Washington Wizards vs. No. 9 Sacramento Kings
Another benefit of holding this tournament would be putting the second-half standouts to the test.
The Washington Wizards looked like a bona fide playoff squad after the All-Star break, and they were much harder to beat once John Wall had fully recovered from his injury. Even after losing six games in a row to close the season, Washington finished the second half significantly higher in the standings.
So, let's see how the Wiz can do against a dysfunctional Sacramento Kings team in their first game of the tournament.
Kings fans, you might want to avert your eyes if this game ever comes to pass.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
No. 1 Utah Jazz vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards
While the Washington Wizards deserve better than the No. 8 seed their record earned them, they aren't beating the favorites in this tournament.
The Utah Jazz fell just shy of a playoff spot in the much more competitive Western Conference, ultimately trailing the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers by a mere two games. John Wall is a great player, but he's not joined by another stud.
Meanwhile, the Jazz feature Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, and the rest of the roster ain't too shabby. Utah might not be a glamorous team, but it's full of quality NBA players.
No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 10 New Orleans Hornets
The Dallas Mavericks are another team that was close to earning the final spot in the playoffs. However, they weren't able to complete the comeback in the standings and now find themselves as one of the co-favorites in this tournament.
While New Orleans can keep this matchup close, a healthy Dirk Nowitzki comes out on top. The Mavericks were much better down the stretch when the German 7-footer was in the lineup, and that's going to carry over into their hypothetical postseason.
Anthony Davis might be able to guard Dirk in a couple years, but he's going to be terrorized by the flamingo fadeaway in the present.
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Minnesota Timberwolves
Here's another fun Western Conference vs. Eastern Conference matchup!
Well actually, it's not too much fun for the East.
Philadelphia earned the No. 3 seed by finishing three games better than the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the latter is more impressive due to the strength of schedule. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the 'Wolves played the fifth-toughest schedule during the 2012-13 season.
Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday and the Sixers got to play the 18th-toughest one.
No. 4 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers
I'm going to go against my rule of picking the Western Conference here because the Toronto Raptors were a much better team after Rudy Gay joined them midway through the season. They got better still when Gay decided he actually wanted to be a productive player down the closing stretch.
Toronto won seven of its nine games in April, and we're going to make it eight of 10 thanks to a quarterfinal victory over the Blazers.
Hey, Damian Lillard's rookie season has to end eventually...
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No. 1 Utah Jazz vs. No. 4 Toronto Raptors
The first meeting between the Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors was an entertaining one. Led by 37 points from DeMar DeRozan, Canada's NBA representative forced triple overtime but eventually fell to the Jazz, 140-133.
In the second matchup, Utah decided it didn't want a repeat. This time, the Jazz just blew the Raptors out of the water, winning by 32 points.
The third game will be somewhere in the middle (bold prediction there, right?), but Utah will make it a clean sweep.
No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 6 Minnesota Timberwolves
Ricky Rubio has tortured enough defenses with his ridiculous court vision. It's time for him to go home and rest a bit, and he'll be able to do so after the Dallas Mavericks knock the Minnesota Timberwolves out of the running for the 31st pick in the draft.
Unless Kevin Love miraculously returns and counters Dirk Nowitzki's ability to play the stretch-4, this game is Dallas' to lose.
Dallas won't lose, though.
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No. 1 Utah Jazz vs. No. 2 Dallas Mavericks
At this point in the tournament, the games will truly mean something to the teams. Not only will that one draft pick hang in the balance, but pride will be on the line as well.
And that's a good thing, since moving up from No. 32 to No. 31 in the NBA draft means that you've increased your expected four-year win shares by...wait for it...0.12.
All these guys are competitive, or else they wouldn't be playing basketball at this level. Can you imagine how intense this game would get?
You have Dirk Nowitzki trying to carry his team, possibly for the last time before he truly starts declining. O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison are playing for their jobs and reputations. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap want to show off their skills before free agency, while the Utah backups all want to prove their value.
The depth of the Jazz forces me to pick the No. 1 seed all the way through, but this would surely be a close game. And since we're still operating under the one-and-done system, anything could happen.
Predicted Tournament Champion: Utah Jazz
New Draft Order (picks No. 45 through 60 do not change)
No. 31: Utah Jazz
No. 32: Dallas Mavericks
No. 33: Toronto Raptors
No. 34: Minnesota Timberwolves
No. 35: New Orleans Hornets
No. 36: Washington Wizards
No. 37: Portland Trail Blazers
No. 38: Philadelphia 76ers
No. 39: Orlando Magic
No. 40: Cleveland Cavaliers
No. 41: Sacramento Kings
No. 42: Detroit Pistons
No. 43: Charlotte Bobcats
No. 44: Phoenix Suns