Is Europe's Midseason Tournament Right for the NBA? We Asked NBA Europeans.

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2020

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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Over the past few months, the NBA has appeared much more serious about implementing a midseason tournament. Commissioner Adam Silver has long envisioned a schedule similar to the one many of the top European leagues play, with multiple cups and championships scattered throughout the calendar.

But among players who have competed in those leagues, there's plenty of skepticism as to whether the European model can translate to the NBA.

"Hell no," says Portland Trail Blazers forward Mario Hezonja, who is Croatian and played three seasons in Spain for FC Barcelona before entering the NBA draft in 2015. "This is the NBA. Come on. They're trying to be like Europe? No way."

The high-level European basketball leagues mirror the format of their soccer counterparts. Every nation has its own domestic league with its own championship; the top teams from each country also compete against each other in several international tournaments throughout the year, including Euroleague, the EuroCup and the FIBA Basketball Champions League.

Phoenix Suns point guard Ricky Rubio was a teenage superstar in the Spanish Liga ACB before coming over to the NBA nearly a decade ago. He won just about every trophy you can win in his home country: the EuroCup in 2008, the Euroleague championship in 2010 and the Spanish league title in 2011.

In nine NBA seasons, Rubio has played in the playoffs just twice, both coming as a member of the Utah Jazz in 2017-18 and 2018-19. His Suns aren't title contenders by any stretch, so he wouldn't mind a tournament to give their season meaning and break up the monotony of the 82-game grind.

"It could make the regular season seem not as long as it is," Rubio says. "If the tournament is only two months away, it could make teams prepare more. It's hard to say if it'll work or not."

Rubio compares the NBA's proposed tournament to Liga ACB's Copa del Rey (King's Cup), a competition between the top eight teams at the midpoint of the year that doesn't necessarily reflect who the best teams will be at the end of the season.

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"The King's Cup really tests how you're doing during the year," Rubio says. "It's a championship that smaller teams can win and give [fans] a reason to cheer for that season."

It's not hard to see why Silver is thinking this way. The NBA has never been more of a global enterprise than it is in 2020.

Some of today's brightest young stars—Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, to name a few—are from overseas. The league is investing more resources than ever into developing talent in other parts of the world, including the recently announced Basketball Africa League and the creation of a G League franchise in Mexico City.

On paper, it makes perfect sense to experiment with schedule changes that might appeal to viewers in other countries. Convincing players and fans to get invested in a new tournament, without the seven-decade history of the NBA's championship or the ingrained understanding of the multi-cup format, could be a tougher task.

"Every cup means something [in Europe]," says Frenchman Evan Fournier, an eight-year NBA veteran currently with the Orlando Magic. "If you win the Euroleague championship, that's the biggest thing. Then there's the French cup and the Copa del Rey. That means something to the fans in those countries. But the NBA is all about winning the championship. You want a ring. If they create a second tournament, nobody cares. Period."

Some version of the midseason tournament idea has existed in NBA circles for over a decade. Bill Simmons has advocated for a so-called "Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament" since the mid-2000s, when he was a national columnist at ESPN. Practically from the day Silver took over from David Stern as commissioner in 2014, he's kicked around the notion.

This season, it's evolved from a fun hypothetical to a serious proposal that Silver is discussing with the 30 team owners and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts.

The league's proposal involves cutting the regular season from 82 games to 78 with an in-season tournament taking place between Thanksgiving and Christmas and involving both a divisional group stage and a knockout round at a neutral site. Possible reported incentives could range from a $1 million-per-player cash prize to an extra first-round pick for the winning team.

A single-elimination tournament would, in theory, create something besides the Larry O'Brien Trophy that teams could play for and players and fans could get excited about.

"The idea is interesting," says Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky, who has played professionally in both Spain and his native Czech Republic. "I know how it feels to play in two competitions. The Copa del Rey is interesting because everybody has an equal chance to win. It's a little like the Final Four in the NCAA. So from that standpoint, it would be interesting for the smaller teams who would have a chance to win something. But I think it would be very physically difficult to do it. Players are already tired."

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 30: Tomas Satoransky #31 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 30, 2019 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
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Holding the final rounds of a midseason tournament at a neutral site would be one way to reduce travel, something the league has been trying to find ways to do for years. But the proposed tournament would simply be repurposing some games from the existing schedule.

It's highly unlikely the NBA actually cuts games from the season any time soon since neither the owners nor the players have shown much interest in giving back money from gate receipts or game checks. A revamped schedule with a second cup that takes inspiration from European leagues could be a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

"People are wired differently over here," Hezonja says. "All these players, we all look up to [Michael] Jordan, Magic Johnson, all of them. And they were grinding, man. There was none of this load management. That's the beauty of the game. I would play back-to-back-to-back. They paved the way for all of us. So for the league to be like, 'Forget what they did, let's just do our own thing?' Nah. I think people should adapt their game to ours. We shouldn't be doing anything new. It works. [The tournament] might work, it might bring more money into the league, more excitement, but if it's the best thing, I really don't know."

It remains to be seen whether the midseason tournament will become a reality. Silver hopes to bring it to a vote, along with play-in games for the lower playoff seeds and a re-seeding of the conference finals, at April's Board of Governors meeting in New York. The changes would need approval from 23 of the 30 teams, along with buy-in from the players' union, to be adopted for the 2021-22 season.

Players are skeptical, especially those who have played in both systems. But not all of them are opposed to the idea.

"Changes are sometimes good," says Rubio. "I'm up to it. You never know. It may go for a couple seasons and you see that it's not working and go back to how it was. But you'll never know until you try it."


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is based in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.