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An NBA tournament would blend elite talent and March Madness-like desperation

A one-and-done playoff format featuring the best athletes in the world playing with an urgency seen more in the NCAA Tournament? Yes, please!

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks
The lowly Bulls, with Zach LaVine (left) and Jim Boylen, participating in the postseason? Under this NBA Tournament format, quite possibly.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The NCAA Tournament regularly takes a beating from NBA fans who scoff at a watered-down March Madness. Most of the best young talent is in the NBA, the critics say. It’s a fair point. It’s also one that misses the point.

The NBA can’t touch the hold the NCAA Tournament has on our country for three weeks every year. The NBA is a stretch limo of cool. The NCAA Tournament is a hands-in-the-air, heart-in-throat roller-coaster plunge. The coronavirus outbreak wiped out the Big Dance this year, leaving us devoid of thrills and spills and office pools. Remember a quainter time when economists would complain about lost productivity during the tournament? I’m guessing they’re absolutely pining for the return of those days.

Why not solve all of these problems by combining what the NCAA and the NBA do best? If and when the NBA returns to action, the playoffs could become a one-and-done tournament to crown a champion. The NBA tournament would feature the best players in the world playing with an urgency we often hear about in sports but don’t often see. Survive and advance. Lose and go home to your video games.

A March Madness-like tournament for the NBA this season isn’t a new idea. I’ve seen it proposed elsewhere, but here’s where most scenarios miss the boat: There’s no outrage involved. For this to really work, for the NBA to mimic the best of the NCAA Tournament, there needs to be a selection committee, Selection Sunday, bubble teams, questionable choices, angry fan bases and irate coaches. There needs to be one or two teams, possibly good ones, that don’t get an invite.

But how do you do that with only 30 NBA franchises? The easy call would be to not invite the league’s bottom-dwellers. But that would defeat part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so appealing. You want a George Mason, an 11th seed in the 2006 Tournament, to make it to the Final Four. So you want the 22-43 Bulls to make the tournament, as hard as that might be for most of us to fathom right now. You want the possibility of upsets that no one in his or her right mind would have contemplated. That’s a big part of the allure of the NCAA Tournament.

So how do you replicate that in the NBA’s version of the Big Dance? With a lottery, a poisonous one. Here’s how it would work. The top four seeds from each conference would be exempt. The remaining teams would each have one ball bouncing around in a lottery machine. NBA commissioner Adam Silver would then remove two balls and says “see ya’’ to those two teams. It could be the Pacers, with the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference, and the Warriors, with the worst record in the league. It could be anybody.

I know: Completely arbitrary and completely unfair — just like some of the NCAA selection committee’s decisions every year. You know, the decisions that make otherwise calm people go berserk. What we live to see every March.

Watch Pacers coach Nate McMillan lose his mind on national TV. Watch Golden State players, many of whom you’ve never heard of before, jump out of their chairs in celebration.

And perhaps watch the Warriors upset the top-seeded Lakers in a one-game “series.’’

That would be a lot more fun than a best-of-seven first-round series between the Thunder and Jazz.

If you think this is goofy, trust me, it’s a lot less so than the NBA HORSE tournament and the recently completed NBA 2K Players Tournament.

TV networks obviously would want more bang for their billions of bucks than a one-and-done tournament. They’d want as many best-of-seven playoff series as they could get. The more games, the more money. But think about the ratings. Think about games that really, really matter. There’s nothing like watching an elite athlete put heart and soul and muscle into a game on the line.

You can see the influence of desperation at basic levels of competition. You can even see it in pickup basketball games at a crowded park or gym. Your team wins, you get to play again. Your team loses, you might have to wait for three or four games to be played before you get another chance. This explains why there’s invariably one player who, with his team losing by a basket, announces that his team is ahead by a basket. A long argument ensues because much is at stake and because guys are idiots.

Now multiply that by 1,000, and you’d have Giannis Antetokounmpo playing for his playoff life against Jimmy Butler.

Or against the Bulls’ Cristiano Felicio.

A bad team can’t win a best-of-seven series. A bad, motivated team can win one game.

But what if the Bulls somehow win the tournament? Wouldn’t coach Jim Boylen then get to keep his job? I can see my tournament proposal needs some more thought.