Kit Bag

Envisioning an NBA European Conference
Richard Hendrix, right, of Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv is challenged by Mantas Kalnietis , left, from Lithuania's BC Zalgiris during the top 16 Euroleague basketball match against BC Zalgiris in Kaunas, Lithuania, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
Mindaugas Kulbis STR

Envisioning an NBA European Conference


I wrote yesterday that Adam Silver's mission in taking over for David Stern as NBA commissioner will be to expand the league's global footprint it began to establish during Stern's 30-year reign.

One of the things I remarked on was how, over the weekend, Kenny Smith and the rest of TNT's Inside the NBA analysts were discussing exactly what that would entail.

Smith's overarching point was that the next step in expansion was, logically, into Europe, perhaps with a small European division that current NBA teams would tour during the regular season and could be incorporated into the NBA league structure.

The question is could that work, and how?

First, let's do away with the idea that the NBA would establish its own expansion franchises on the continent. It's possible they could try, but is anyone in Spain going to root for, say, the Madrid Royals? Anyone in France gonna come out to support the Paris Blues?

Seems unlikely at best.

Instead, it feels like they'd need to work with the existing European powers. But would a Real Madrid, or Barcelona, or Bayern Munich or any of the rest of Europe's leading basketball sides be willing to abandon their domestic leagues to come under the NBA's likely lucrative umbrella?

That's impossible to say, of course. The Liga ACB or Basket Bundesliga may not have the history and tradition of La Liga or the Bundesliga in football, but they do have histories and traditions. Even if each NBA team did, say, a four-team European tour each season, it's exceedingly difficult to imagine a club like Real Madrid being able to reconcile playing an NBA-style 82-game schedule and abandoning its traditional opponents to play what would have to be something like 40 or 50 games against the same three opponents, at least at the beginning.

And it's especially hard to imagine them ditching traditional European-style tournaments that occur outside a normal league schedule, like the Copa del Rey.

So for it to be a little less hard to imagine, it would seem like they'd need something along the lines of at least eight participating clubs from the outset.

We wouldn't be seeing any such thing for at least 15-20 years and likely longer, but, for fun, let's imagine what that initial European division would look like.

Real Madrid, probably Europe's best club right now and historically its most successful, with eight Euroleague titles, would have to be involved for it to work. Barcelona makes sense too, obviously.

The next six clubs? That could go a lot of ways. Right now, by Euroleague Class ratings, the best six would be Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, Maccabi Tel Aviv, CSKA Moscow, Montepaschi Siena and Anadolu Efes.

But it doesn't have to be them, of course. Where clubs stand in 20 or 30 or 40 years, where teams geographically lie, who has the most marketing potential (a London startup franchise would make sense, for example) and so on would ultimately determine the eight.

The eight you wanna go with aren't specifically so important, as it is just getting eight to sign on.

Current NBA teams could each make an 8-trip stop once a year, knocking 30 games off each Euro division team's schedule. That gives them eight games against their closest rival and seven against the rest of their six other European counterparts.

Not super unrealistic, if, well, generally unrealistic. The whole premise is unrealistic, but let's keep working with it here.

For NBA teams, of course, that means 8 road games knocked off their typical 41-road-game schedule. With the remaining 33 road games, they play 25 NBA teams on the road once (25) and their four division opponents twice (33).

So... fairly straightforward, actually. Western and Eastern conference teams already only play each other home-and-away twice every year. You're basically just taking away a few extra conference games and turning them into European games.

You could even arrange it other ways, with maybe each NBA team just doing four Euro stops and the Euro teams doing a four-stop American tour. That messes up the home/road dynamics a bit, but I'm not a schedule-maker, I imagine it could be figured out.

The next step, then, is what to do with the play-offs.

The easiest setup at first, by my reckoning, is to take the two best Euro teams, and slot each into a 3-game 'Wild Card' play-in series against the East and West eight-seeds.

It would need tweaking on some level, naturally, because it stands to reason the best European team might eventually be substantially better than the 8-seed, in which case the Euro team would need to be seeded somewhere more appropriate than 8 if they advanced. But that, again, doesn't really feel like a dealbreaker.

So the ability to structure it appears to be there. That brings us to a whole list of things like roster construction (does the NBA have an 'expansion draft' like they have done for incoming teams in the past, or should they be mostly composed of Europeans? Wouldn't the latter put them at a disadvantage?), television (revenue distribution, is anyone in Los Angeles going to watch the Lakers play Real Madrid at 10 in the morning?), labour law (can European-based players be protected by the NBA Player's Association?) etc. etc. that nobody, least of all me, is really in a position to answer right now.

But yeah, it's fun to imagine.

Me, if I'm starting it tomorrow? Probably would try to gear it toward Western Europe for the initial expansion, focusing on Britain, Spain, France, Italy and Germany.

And no offence to any already-existing basketball clubs, but ideally you'd get established football teams to at least lend their valuable name brands to a basketball club (not that they'd be inclined to just casually do so, but to be associated with the NBA? Possibly).

Which means you'd have Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich that already have basketball sides, and get, I dunno, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and reach east for perennial basketball powers Olympiakos and Panathinaikos to round it out.

If we're only working from existing teams? Real, Barca, Bayern, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, Montepaschi Siena (Italy), Emporio Armani Milano (Italy), JSF Nanterre (France).

Expand eastward, and eventually you're talking about including worthy sides like Fenerbahce Ulker, Galatasaray, Tel Aviv, CSKA Moscow, Zalgiris (Lithuania, with their long love affair with basketball, really should get a team from the start), Partizan Belgrade. Consider some more Western European teams like Unicaja Malaga, Brose (Germany), Strasbourg (France), maybe that London team... and eventually you're talking about getting to around 15, a proper conference.

Like I said, if we ever get it, it won't be for a long while. But you could kind of see it off in the distance if you squint really hard.