Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young are Olympic gold medalists now. They should also be the catalysts for a permanent change in both WNBA and NBA basketball.
Even though Team USA dominated women’s 3x3 basketball in Tokyo, going 6-1 in pool play before knocking out world No. 1 France in the semifinals, and the Russian team for the gold, every moment of the halfcourt tournament was intense and exciting. It’s still basketball, of course, but 3x3’s pace, physicality, and intensity — helped by each game being 10 minutes or first to 21 points, whichever happens faster — make it a different kind of challenge. After seeing some high-level WNBA talent on the Olympic floor, showing both the need to adapt to a different kind of game and the ability of skill to shine through, it’s time to bring it home.
This season, the WNBA introduced the Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season competition that you’d barely know was happening if you weren’t paying close attention. That’s because, so far, it hasn’t been a separate competition at all, just a format where some regular-season games count toward the secondary standings, leading up to one standalone game, the Seattle Storm against the Connecticut Sun on Aug. 12 in Phoenix, for the Cup. Being that it’s based on regular season results, there’s hardly any intrigue in the fact that the teams with the best and third-best records in the league are the finalists, and that only because Las Vegas, the second-best team in the league, trailed Seattle in the Commissioner’s Cup western standings.
The NBA, likewise, is looking to stage an in-season tournament, to help add some spice to a regular season that at times feels as if it drags on interminably. The NBA’s idea is similar to the WNBA setup, with select regular-season games also counting toward that tournament. If you think that players, fans, or anyone else is going to care extra about some games in November and December counting “extra,” you’re kidding yourself.
The Olympics put the answer out in the open for all to see, and it’s 3x3.
What the NBA and WNBA should do is embrace this different form of basketball, so familiar because it taps into playground ball, while also so different in style from what you normally see at the professional level — not to mention perfect for adding to the audience.
The way it should work is that if teams have a game on a Friday or Saturday night, but aren’t playing a back-to-back, they should stay in town and play 3x3 the following afternoon — the following late afternoon, so that there’s an opportunity to rest up.
The key to staging 3x3 in the afternoon is that the differences in the game make it a great way to draw in kids. Not only is the gameplay fast-paced, but the games are short. Because of that, the tickets should be less expensive to allow more families to attend, and the selling point for television is that you’ll get an hour or so of quality programming.
Each matchup should consist of three 3x3 games, with each win counting in the tournament standings and a bonus point given for a sweep. Between games, as the players involved catch their breath, each team could designate competitors for other in-season competitions, a year-long three-point shootout and slam dunk contest, featuring players on the roster who aren’t taking part in the 3x3 tournament.
That last part is key. In the era of load management, each NBA and WNBA team would name its four participants for the 3x3 games. Nikola Jokić, who can’t seem to get enough basketball and led the NBA in minutes this season, might decide to participate for Denver, while you probably wouldn’t see Kawhi Leonard suit up for the Clippers. To encourage participation, players could be offered a bonus for taking part — good money for the bench guys, a little something extra for the stars — carved out from the TV money generated by the tournament.
As a result, you’d get a mix of familiar stars and end-of-the-bench players getting an opportunity to shine and establish themselves as different kinds of stars. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, ask a basketball fan between the ages of 35 and 45 about Craig Hodges, Tim Legler, Dee Brown, or Harold Miner — we still remember them as a big deal for their All-Star weekend exploits, even though they weren’t exactly All-Star players.
Between the four players in 3x3 and the single competitors for the three-point and dunk contests, you’re asking six players per team to compete in these afternoon showcases, where families can get a chance to see in-person NBA and WNBA action for less money, and TV partners get easy weekend afternoon programming that’s kid-friendly and a great introduction to the sport without making them sit through the bane of professional basketball games, the second quarter.
Then, when the Olympics come back around, it’ll be another chance for more of the best basketball players in the world to show their stuff, because while we learned from Tokyo that there are lots of good ballplayers who are 3x3 specialists, it’s even better when some of the flat-out best hoopers in the world take the court for the halfcourt game, something that the NBA and WNBA can offer all year round.
To grow the game, the stewards of pro basketball in America just need to shrink it.