Quick Thoughts

1. The NBA Cup:  I guess it’s time we weighed in on the concept of the in-season tournament to win the NBA Cup (and a large cash prize for winning teams).  I had all but forgotten about this tourney until this week when the “Heist” NBA ads started.  A refresher on the rules can be found here but the quick recap is as follows:

-All 30 teams are subdivided into groups of five teams

-The subgroups play each other in regular season games that count towards regular season standings but also towards qualifying to a single elimination tourney in Las Vegas

-The top eight teams make the Vegas stage.  This stage will be comprised of the team with the best record in each of the six groups plus one wild card from each conference that had the second-best record in its group (which will likely be determined by some weird tiebreaker rules that we won’t get into here).

Per Forbes via ESPN, the teams (players and coaches) that make the knockout round get cash prizes that will descend based on teams placement: the winners getting $500,000 per person, runners-up getting $200,000, semifinalists getting $100,000, and quarterfinalists getting $50,000.

The goal of the tourney is to generate fan interest early in the season and to combat the founded perception that the regular season is not intense enough.  Adam Silver explained that “[t]his is a concept that has been rumbling around the league office for about 15 years.  It’s not a new concept in sports. For those that follow particularly international soccer, it’s a long tradition of having in-season tournaments … so we thought, what a perfect opportunity for a global league like the NBA and it’s a perfect fit for our game.”

Presumably, the chance at extra cash will excite the players and coaches (though it’s not clear why fans would care if Nikola Jokic and his team get an extra $500,000).  My unscientific review has seen some excitement for the tourney and some ambivalence.  My feeling is that the tourney is, essentially, meaningless for the fans.  This is best illustrated by this hypothetical: if Denver or some other title contender wins this tourney and goes on to get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, the season would be considered an abject failure and the early season NBA Cup win would hold no lasting fan good will.  In theory, a non-playoff team with lower expectations could point to winning the NBA Cup or even just making Vegas as a partial success for the season but that also rings a bit hollow.  Ultimately, the NBA is about playoff success first and foremost.

This is not to say that the NBA Cup is not worth watching.  It’s a fun little mini-drama and the players do seem to be playing pretty hard.  On the other hand, the teams usually play hard early in the season anyway because every team has a theoretical chance to contend at this point.  It’s the dog days of the season (usually starting in late January), when many teams are starting the hard tank or coasting for other reasons, when the intensity wanes.  Moreover, I could see the novelty of this tourney wearing off if it is repeated too many years in a row.  It’s fun that the NBA is trying something creative but this format will need tweaking at some point.

What tweaks though?  Tyrese Haliburton suggested that that stakes should have playoff consequences: “I think the greatest incentive for everybody to do it would be an automatic playoff bid.  If it was a playoff spot, I think everyone would take it very, very serious, right? I think the older teams would take it seriously.”  Interesting idea but it has two major drawbacks: (a) most of the really good teams already are basically guaranteed playoff spots and the key issue is seeding and (b) even if the reward was a top seed in the playoffs, the NBA Cup would essentially encourage the winner to stop playing hard until the playoffs, paradoxically, devaluing the regular season.  There may be a sweet spot here that balances the concerns by guaranteeing a top four seed (ie homecourt in the first round only) but that still isn’t a perfect solution. 

2.  Streaks to Start the Season:  The Grizzlies were supposed to be competitive this year, even without Ja Morant for 25 games to start the season.  Well, Memphis has started out 0-6 and not looked great.  Are they done for the season?  No, but this is clearly a bad indicator.  Just for fun, here are the worst winless starts to a season by teams that would ultimately make the playoffs (our search is limited to the time since the NBA went the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84):

-Phoenix 1996-97, 0-13: The year after Phoenix pulled the plug on the Charles Barkley Era, the Suns had an awful start to the season.  Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons quit after an 0-8 start and Danny Ainge started 0-5 before turning things around and finishing 40-29 after several major trades (they got Jason Kidd and played a small ball lineup with Kevin Johnson). They ultimately lost a tough five-game series to Seattle.

-Chicago 2004-05, 0-9:  The Bulls were bad for years after MJ retired so an 0-9 start wasn’t surprising but this one ended up being anomalous.  The Bulls were good and had a tough early schedule. Chicago lost at home in double OT on opening night and then played six of the next eight on the road, including a killer west coast trip.  The Bulls started out at 0-9 before the defense turned on and they closed the season 47-26. 

-Cleveland 1984-85, 0-9:  George Karl tried to de-emphasize the World B. Free-centric offense for more team play and the results were terrible.  They started 0-9 and bottomed out at 2-19.  Free’s stats during the bad start: 27 mpg, 15.8 ppg, 6-14.3 FG/FGAPG, .423 FG%, .385 3FG%, 2.4 RPG, 3.8 APG.

Karl unleashed Free and the Cavs finished up 34-27, squeaking into the playoffs as an eight seed.  World’s stats during that stretch were: 33.6 mpg, 25.3 ppg, 9.6/20.6 FG/FGAPG, .469 FG%, .365 3FG%, 3.2 RPG, 4.7 APG.

-Miami 2003-04, 0-7:  In Dwayne Wade’s rookie year, Miami started 0-7 against a hard early schedule with five road games and the two home games were against eventual title winner Detroit and a Minnesota team that had the best record in the west.  Miami went 29-12 at home and 13-28 on the road.  When the schedule evened up, Miami made the playoffs and even won a first-round playoff series.

-Cleveland 1995-96, 0-7:  The Cavs were very slow paced and unexciting under Mike Fratello and he agreed to try to run more to start the 1995-96 season.  The result was the 0-7 start and they only got their mojo back when they slowed things down again.  At least that’s the story Fratello liked to tell.  Digging deeper, the Cavs lost because they had a really bad early schedule.  Cleveland had to play the Reggie Miller Pacers, the peak MJ Bulls twice, the David Robinson Spurs, the peak Penny Magic, and two other playoff teams on the road (Miami and Detroit).  Cleveland was outscored 86-99 during this stretch.

Moreover, the Cavs tamped down the defense the rest of the way, going 47-28 and outscoring opponents 91.6-87.6.  It didn’t hurt that Terrell Brandon jumped to All-Star level after a slow start. He put up 13.6 ppg and 4.4 apg during the opening losing streak and 19.9 ppg, 6.7 apg afterwards. 

So, there is some precedent for bad starts to be overcome on occasion.  Unlike these teams, though, Memphis’ start didn’t involve many great teams.  The hope is that the return of Morant can serve as boost like unleashing Free did for the 1984-85 Cavs.  Either way, a six-game losing streak to start the season greatly reduces the Grizz’s ceiling.

For the sake of symmetry, here are the best win streaks to start the season by teams that missed the playoffs (also since 1983-84):

-Seattle 1998-99, 6-0: Started out 6-0 coming out of the lockout but slumped to 19-25 the rest of the way.  This was the year Vin Baker regressed due to personal issues but he was actually worse in the 6-0 start than he was during the rest of the season.  Seattle just had five of the first six games at home against mostly bad teams. 

-Golden State 1994-95, 5-0:  The Warriors were supposed to be good but Chris Webber was holding out and GS started 5-0 without him, even scoring a nice road win against the Spurs team that would have the best record in the west.  This convinced GS to dump Webber in a trade that didn’t really work out and the Warriors collapsed shortly afterwards.  Our deep dive on this situation can be found here.

-L.A. Clippers 1985-86, 5-0: The Clipps weren’t totally awful (they had healthy vets Norm Nixon and Marques Johnson) and they had four of the first five games at home against mostly tepid teams.  In Clippers fashion, they immediately went on an eight-game losing streak and finished the year at 32-50.

Finally, let’s give a special acknowledgement to the 1970-71 Pistons, who started out the year 9-0 only to miss the playoffs.  We didn’t officially “count” this team in our inquiry because only four teams made the playoffs from each conference back then.  Detroit finished 45-37 and were actually last in the Midwest Division.  The rub is that the Warriors made playoffs as the second team in the Pacific at only 41-41.  Detroit fans have little beef, however, because Phoenix finished 48-34 and also missed the playoffs.