Every new idea needs a champion.
For years, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had been pitching the idea of an In-Season Tournament to a skeptical audience, including the team owners he works for and had to approve it. However, with the success of the play-in tournament and the NBA negotiating new national television broadcast rights fees — this tournament is something else they might be able to sell — got Silver the leverage he needed and the NBA pushed forward with the tournament this season.
It was LeBron James who made it an event.
The fact LeBron decided he wanted to win this — he did become the first In-Season Tournament MVP — made it legitimate in the eyes of many players and fans.
"This is the [first] in-season tournament... Records will be broken, but one thing that will never be broken is to be the first to do something," LeBron said to ESPN's Malika Andrews during the televised trophy ceremony. "And we're the first champions of the in-season tournament, and nobody can ever top that, and it's great to do it with a historical franchise and just a great cast of funny, engaged, competitive men over here.”
The first In-Season Tournament (IST) was a success — players were engaged, television ratings were reportedly up, and the T-Mobile Arena just off the Las Vegas strip was filled.
It's fair to ask how the ratings and in-person attendance would have gone without the gravity of LeBron and the Lakers drawing in fans. It's fair to ask if fans will care about the In-Season Tournament in 5-10 years when the novelty has worn off.
We will get to find out — the In-Season Tournament is here to stay. At least for a while.
The league office's ultimate goal became clear over the tournament — to create something it could sell as a separate package as part of the ongoing television rights negotiations. A number of the top streaming services have talked about wanting in on NBA games and it's not difficult to envision "The NBA In-Season Tournament exclusively on [insert streaming service here].”
That's possible because the players – led by LeBron — bought in. Teams didn't treat the IST as a regular season game, and that brought the fans along.
"This doesn't have a regular-season feel at all," the Pacers Tyrese Haliburton said after the final game. "I'm used to playing LeBron whatever he plays, 30, 35 minutes. It felt like him and [Anthony Davis] never came off the floor. It was like a playoff-type deal.”
One reason the players bought in was the money — each member of the Lakers roster just made an extra $500,000, while each Pacer made $200,000. That mattered to players and they were open about it. The chance to spend three days in Las Vegas during the NBA season also motivated players.
"In terms of the interest we are seeing around the in-season tournament, I don't think it was just the money. I think it was the competition, in part," Silver said. "I think it was coming to Vegas. I think it was all of those things that made the difference…
"I would say players, at the end of the day, they are not that different than other people we know, that money is a motivator but not a sole motivator of their behavior.”
There will be tweaks to the IST before next season — just don't expect the colorful courts to go away. While the designs will change, the colorful courts — which were polarizing among fans — are something the league counts as a success. A unique, colorful NBA Finals court is not out of the question.
"I think what the learning from these In-Season Tournament courts is, we kind of have a little bit more fun with the courts" Silver said. "Also, what I've heard from fans often is that particularly if they are not at home, in a sports bar or somewhere, they see the colorful court, it signifies something different going on. What surprised me a little bit, I was talking to some of the players yesterday on both teams, and they were saying they appreciated that the different color courts signify that the game was special…
"You've given me an idea. It may not be just the Finals logo. But for the Finals, we could have a special Finals court, again, not just with the trophy in the center, but a little bit more colorful.”
There will be tweaks to the format, however.
Point differential was controversial with players and coaches — because it encouraged teams to run up the score — and Silver admitted that this feature, common in NBA tournaments in Europe and around the globe, may not fly with an American audience that sees it as unsportsmanlike.
Other tweaks being floated include finding a way to motivate organizations and fan bases for the IST — possibly adding one win to the total of the tournament winner, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports. The league isn't going to give teams an added draft pick for winning — you don't motivate role players to take this seriously by providing the winning team a path to replacing said player — and guaranteeing a play-in spot seems a step further than the league is comfortable going. An added win to help playoff seeding could be a motivation.
Expect the schedule to be tweaked as well. Part of the goal had been to boost what is usually a quiet part of the NBA season — going up against the NFL — but would the tournament be better in January and early February in the run-up to the All-Star Game? The league office — and the bidders for the rights to broadcast those games — will certainly discuss that.
Should more than eight teams make the knockout round? What about 16?
There also were questions about how to fix the wild card and scheduling issues, but those could be resolved in four-to-five years when NBA expansion kicks in (as expected). Then there would be 32 teams, forming eight groups of four, and no wild card (plus all the teams from a group can play on the same night, so Orlando being at home and done watching the Celtics blow out the Bulls to pass them will not happen).
Those are questions for down the line.
For now, Adam Silver can take a victory lap, the NBA In-Season Tournament has been a success in every way the league needed it to be.
And LeBron James deserves an assist for that.