Tuesday, November 8, 2011


During the interminable NBA lockout, the Memo hasn’t had anything to chew on.  No offseason player movement, no retrenching and strategizing on how the East is going to catch the Heat.  

So it was time to a take a hiatus while the game was sleeping. As the two sides wrangle over how to structure their league, I figured it was time to come out of hibernation and do their jobs for them.

As soccer has finally begun its long-predicted rise in America, some have wondered if a European soccer format, with relegation and promotion, with transfers and loans, could work with any American sports that have no history of it.

The NFL doesn't need it.  The system already works, and there’s no need for a minor league as college football is such a good developmental system right now, with few players ready for the NFL before 20 or 21.  If the NFL eased its “three years out of high school” rule... you would see very few players jumping early.

Baseball has such an established minor league system that it would take a wholesale blowing up of everything.  Plus, so much public money has gone into building stadiums... it’s will be pretty hard to tell the Pittsburgh Pirates, “Um, sorry, you’re in AAA now.”  Plus, you would run into situations where teams would be playing against their own prospects.

I think the NBA is the one where it would make the most sense and could actually improve the product.


Right now there are 30 franchises in the NBA.  We add six cities to the mix:

Louisville, Kansas City, and St. Louis already have newer, NBA-caliber arenas in place. Seattle needs to get back in the game.  Then throw in two of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Anaheim.

You have a 20-team NBA Premier League, and a 16-team “B-League”.

Every year, the NBA team that has the lowest 2-year cumulative win total gets relegated while the top B-League team gets promoted to the Premiership.  And once a team gets promoted or relegated, they stay put for a minimum of two years.

In England, promotion and relegation is based solely on that season's results, but the nature of the game of basketball doesn’t lend itself to that sort of setup.  If mid-table Fulham loses Clint Dempsey to an injury, they’re not likely going to immediately be staring down the barrel of relegation.  If the .500 Atlanta Hawks lose Joe Johnson for the year, they’re suddenly in the discussion.  Different games.

One of the compelling aspects of the promotion/relegation system in Europe is that there are no meaningless games.  No bad team just plays out the string. If Manchester United plays a bottom-of-the-table team facing relegation, that team is playing as if their lives depended on it and are thus very dangerous.

Imagine what playing the Detroit Pistons would have been like last March if, instead of marking time on the calendar until they could go home, those athletes were playing every game like it was Game 7 of the Finals.

Now, you would have to start this new format four or five years out.  You couldn’t just decide today to send 10 teams to the B-League.  You need to give teams a chance to formulate their strategy for the new format.

You leave the NBA playoffs the same as they have always been, but now with 16 of 20 teams making it instead of 16 of 30.

In English soccer, everyone merely plays everyone else twice.  Geography makes that kind of schedule workable.  Not so much here, and you do still want to maintain geographic rivalries. So you still have an Eastern and Western conference, which obviously gets adjusted slightly each year to reflect promotion and relegation.

The NBA would now integrate with FIBA to allow for transfers internationally.  A player under contract could choose to refuse a transfer overseas and become a free agent if he wants - and his team would have the right to then keep him if the player declined the transfer.

This would then allow an NBA team to pay the buyout of an international whose rights they own, as well - it’s essentially a pre-determined transfer fee.

This FIBA integration would also pave the way for the B-League to be a part of Euroleague, competing with the top club teams in Europe in much the way soccer has its Champions League and Europa League.  So the top B-League teams would be in a tournament with the Benetton Trevisos, Maccabi Tel Avivs, and FC Barcelonas of the world. 

(And by the way, I know it’s the same organization as the soccer club, but would someone explain to me why it’s not BC Barcelona?) 

FIBA/Euroleague integration exposes the NBA to the European market, which falls in line with David Stern’s goal of world domination.

With a B-League now, with 90 more players employed, you have a legitimate outlet for emerging talent, players who don’t belong in college, useful third-tier veterans and foreign players - er, internationals - who aren’t ready for prime time yet.  If the Lakers aren’t ready to dress rookie point guard Darius Morris out of Michigan every night, they can loan him to a B-league team - or to a European team.  

There are going to be a lot of good players in the B-League. It's not the D-League.  Remember, it’s 1/3 of what we now know as the NBA, plus six more clubs. College stars who would have been sitting on NBA benches or toiling in obscurity in the D-league are now going to be getting minutes and playing for something meaningful. 

So how does the NBA draft work now?

The last thing a league wants is the top incoming players starting off in the B-League.  So in keeping with having the B-League playing for a meaningful prize, the team getting promoted also receives the top pick in the draft, which makes the B-League a high stakes game, indeed - and gives a promoted team a fighting chance to compete from the jump.

The next 3 picks will be a lottery of the three remaining Premiership teams that did not make the playoffs.

The next 16 picks will be as they always have been - by record.  

The #21 pick goes to the team that was just relegated, and the remaining 19 are the B-League teams, by record.

You do a 2-round draft in a snake order.  If the second round doesn’t begin until the 37th pick, few if any second rounders will be on Premier League rosters, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

Let's talk finances.

One of the financial realities of this new format is that adding six teams is going to lead to smaller slices of the revenue pie for each team, as these teams would be net negatives.

Another issue is that teams in the B-league won’t pull in the same attendance, in-stadium revenue, and local broadcast contracts.  In fact, virtually all NBA teams will have to re-draw their broadcast deals to reflect the possibility of relegation.

So the overall structure of the league is going to have to include a two-tiered revenue-sharing and cap system.

A B-league roster might be capped at $30 to $35 million, while a Premiership cap might be in the vicinity of $80 million - and their slices of the national TV contract would reflect similar ratios.

When a team gets relegated, they will invariably have to shed payroll to account for the reduced revenue and cap.  So using trades or soccer-style transfers, that team's expensive talent will get spread around.

The result of this structure will be a distinct pooling of talent in the new NBA Premier League.  There won’t be more superstars than before, but virtually every team is going to have a legit 8 or 9 man rotation.     

While the best teams will still win the Championship most often, the days of #7 and #8 seeds never winning a playoff series will be over.  Lower-table Premiership teams are going to look like #2 or #3 playoff seeds now.

The quality of play in the Premiership is going to be off the charts.

Returning to the draft now...

Because of this upward distribution of wealth, so to speak, it’s rare that a second round pick is going to make a Premiership team.  In fact, a good number of the first rounders will not make their teams.  This is where the soccer-style system of loans and transfers comes into play.  

Bringing back the Darius Morris example:  he surely won’t make the Lakers.  So they will have a host of options.  They could offer him the chance to go overseas and likely start there, and work out a transfer with a European team.  Or let’s say the Kentucky Colonels of the B-League (I just made up that Louisville team) really need a point guard.  The Lakers can loan him there for a season (or two) until he’s ready to contribute in L.A.  And if he becomes a vital cog on a Colonels team that competes for promotions and really want to keep him, they can attempt to negotiate a transfer or trade with the Lakers.  This is what happens all the time in European club soccer.

A system like this creates a much more dynamic developmental environment for players, ensuring that true developmental projects get to play meaningful, competitive basketball after college - or high school, if they were never cut out for college.

The B-League is going to feature a quality of play equal to or greater than the best college basketball.  It will draw decent crowds and will be worthy of televising.

Of course, this is going to hurt college basketball.  You’re going to take more players out of the college game with this format.   But college basketball still holds an important place in our sports and cultural landscape, especially on their campuses.  College basketball being reduced to college baseball would not be a good thing.  So the NBA will have install a mechanism similar to baseball’s, where a player can go pro right out of high school, but if he does elect to go to college, he’s there for three years unless he can demonstrate a financial “hardship” - which is what coming out early was once called.  This way, we have a place for the Premiership, the B-League, and the NCAA.

All we need to do now is lock down what percentage of BRI the players get, and we’re good to go.