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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

With negotiations in lull, how about working on NBA product?


Way back in 2009, when the NBA had labor peace, sharp minds were free to indulge ideas that would improve the game without being bogged down in hard caps and BRI.

It was then that commissioner David Stern solicited ideas from the league's competition committee, which recommends rules changes to the Board of Governors. The best concept that emerged from that think tank was then-Denver GM Mark Warkentien's plan for a play-in tournament to determine the eighth playoff seed in each conference, and thus, discourage tanking for lottery ping pong balls.

Does anyone other than John Calipari associate John Wall to UK? Well, maybe it's time to raise the NBA age limit. (Getty Images)  
Does anyone other than John Calipari associate John Wall to UK? Well, maybe it's time to raise the NBA age limit. (Getty Images)  
Since then, nothing. Not a peep about Warkentien's idea or anything else that might make the NBA more compelling, and perhaps, more dynamic and profitable. It is yet another aspect of the work stoppage that the powers that be have gotten backwards.

Just as the owners have stubbornly tabled sharing their revenue-sharing model with the players until after they agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, so, too, is the time and thoughtful energy of smart people being wasted. There is no shortage of creative minds across the league, but the emphasis is so squarely on changing the economic model and winning bargaining concessions that other ways to enhance the product and bring in more revenues are being ignored.

So here's what I would do. While the owners and players are busy not negotiating -- they haven't convened a full bargaining session in nearly a month -- I'd call a three-day session of the competition committee in a central location (Chicago or Dallas) and let them figure out some solutions that have nothing to do with how much money the owners and players get.

Who knows? They might stumble on some concepts that would not only improve the game, but increase the revenue pie for everyone.

Better yet: If I were the players? I'd seize control of the bettering-the-game dialogue and become the lone voice in the wilderness talking about issues fans care about. Clearly, the average fan doesn't want to hear about owners and players griping about money. But what if the players, as part of their September pro league in Las Vegas, convened a committee of All-Stars, mid-level players, Hall of Famers and other legends for a meeting of the minds on how to make the game better? It might result in some viable ideas, and would put the players in the position of discussing the game instead of their opposition to a hard cap and the elimination of guaranteed contracts.

Here are some concepts the executives, players or both could address instead of wasting valuable time arguing (and not arguing) over money:

 Anti-tanking rules: I'd start with the play-in tournament concept, which would incentivize teams with otherwise no hope of making the playoffs to make a move at the trade deadline and take a shot at it. Home playoff dates can be worth as much as $1 million, and the tournament itself -- a three-day, single-elimination event featuring teams 8-15 in each conference -- would generate millions out of thin air. I'd even take it a step further and financially reward teams based on how far up the standings they moved to capture the eighth seed. A surprising run by last season's Cavaliers, who played much better over the final two months of the season, would be rewarded more than the eighth-place team holding serve.

 Make the D-League relevant: I've touched on this before with my concept of each team having three hybrid roster spots for players they could shuttle between the NBA roster and the D-League. It would not only enhance player development but also could be a cost-saving measure for some teams. Rather than having the 35th pick in the draft wasting away at the end of the bench eating up valuable cap space and making NBA rookie wages, players who aren't ready would go to the D-League, get coached by like-minded coaches, and make a multiple of the current D-League salary but substantially less than current NBA rookie scale. Alan Hahn of Newsday has been a strong proponent of an expanded version of this concept, advocating for teams to have the ability to send a draft pick to the minors a certain number of times during the first two or three years of his rookie deal. For most NBA-ready lottery picks, it would never be an issue. But there are too many players getting drafted and either being thrust into roles they're not ready for or languishing on the bench rather than developing with valuable minutes in the D-League. This would be good for the D-League, too -- basketball-wise and financially.

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 The age limit: This is a touchy issue for many, including the National Basketball Players Association, which has stood in staunch opposition to impeding the "right to work" of teen-aged basketball players. But raising the age limit to 19 and two years removed from high school graduation would be good for basketball and good for business. Admittedly, with aggressive D-League changes like those mentioned above, there would be less of a need to keep players in college to develop for another year; NBA teams would be able to better manage that development than some college coach who cares more about his boosters and his job. But short of that, allowing players to benefit from a second year of college experience would make them more NBA-ready, and would represent a step toward regaining the connection fans used to have with players before they even set foot on the stage at the NBA Draft. Does anyone other than John Calipari associate John Wall with Kentucky? Conversely, how many NBA fans still associate Grant Hill with Duke as much or more than any NBA team he's ever played for? Something has been lost with the one-and-done craze, and with it, the value of the NBA's most prized commodities -- the players -- has taken a hit.

 Eliminate divisions: Tell me I've heard a Celtic, Laker or Bull say for the last time, "We don't celebrate division titles around here," and I'll be a happy man. If nobody celebrates them, why do we have them? The league took a step in the right direction in 2006 when it changed the playoff seeding formula to assure that the top four teams -- three division winners and the second-place team with the best record -- were seeded according to win-loss record with no special treatment for division winners. So let's finish the job and get rid of divisions altogether. The top seven teams in each conference make the playoffs and are seeded accordingly, with the eighth seed emerging from the play-in tournament in each conference.

 Adopt the FIBA goaltending rule: This is going to happen one way or another, so there's not much to debate. It's already been tried in the D-League, and the ability of offensive and defensive players to touch the ball when it's on the rim would produce more above-the-rim play and eliminate what often is an impossible call for officials to make.

 Fix the charge rule: Other than basket interference, the block-charge is the most difficult call for referees to make. So let's make it easier -- and emphasize the breathtaking athleticism possessed by NBA perimeter players -- by making it illegal for a defender to slide or jump in the path of an offensive player who already has committed to driving to the basket. With all due respect to Shane Battier, nobody wants to pay these prices to watch charges and flopping. They want to see LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose turn the corner and play above the rim. Removing the step-in charge also would incentivize another lost art -- the weak-side block, which also is a heck of a lot more entertaining than a charge -- and de-emphasize the scourge of flopping.

 Widen the lane? How about the court? Players are bigger, faster and more athletic than ever, and those attributes should be showcased as much as possible. With all due respect to the Jeff Van Gundys and Lawrence Franks of the world -- coaches who've turned hard-knuckle defense into a birth right -- there are too many restrictions on offensive players. Nowhere else in sports will you find a player of LeBron's size, speed and strength confined to such a small area and restricted by so many rules that seem bent on giving an undue advantage to the little guy. Turn the big boys loose by letting them play above the rim, allowing them to drive to the basket without worrying about Jared Jeffries diving under them to draw a charge, and giving them more space in which to showcase their talents. I don't know what the magic number is, but expanding the court by a 2-3 feet on either side -- and eliminating the short corner 3-pointer, which I could make uncontested -- and you'd have a more dynamic, beautiful, marketable and profitable game.

And if the players were really smart, they'd take control of this message and relish the role of trying to improve the sport. Let somebody else complain about how broken it is.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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