Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[Last time on Fact or Fiction: The free-throw disparity that favors LeBron James' Lakers]
As the concept of an in-season NBA tournament gained traction, reactions largely ranged from indifference to indignation. Soon after Adam Silver first floated the idea in 2014, the commissioner conceded, "There wasn’t as much enthusiasm for it as I thought there might be." Five years into the process, one-time MVP James Harden joked, "Are we in college? C'mon, man." Even at the start of this season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, "I'm not a fan," suggesting his team could rest its best players for the competition.
If there is a general consensus on an in-season tournament, it is this: Who even asked for it?
Who even asked for anything? Are we just being anti-fun for the heck of it? I am baffled by this.
Basketball is supposed to be a good time, and with last week's handshake on a new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and its players' union are giving us more meaningful games. I do not understand any response other than a full-on embrace of an inaugural in-season tournament during the 2023-24 campaign.
Here is how sources told Yahoo Sports the tournament will work:
Teams will be assigned to six intraconference pools of five (not necessarily by division).
On designated days during the first six weeks of the regular season, teams will play four group games — one each against the other teams in their pool (everyone plays two at home and two on the road).
The winners of each pool and two wild-card teams will advance to a single-elimination tournament (tiebreakers to determine the eight participants, such as point differential, are still being discussed).
The semifinals and finals of the tournament will be held at a neutral site.
Players for the tournament champion will each receive $500,000.
That's it. That's the tournament. It requires no heavy lifting from you.
The NBA will schedule 80 regular season games at the start of next season, including pool play. The tournament's quarterfinals and semifinals will count toward the regular season. All remaining teams will be scheduled additional games that run concurrently with the competition to ensure each roster plays 82. (This was vital to the tournament's success, since the alternative incentivizes teams to rest rather than advance.)
The in-season tournament will add a single game to the schedule for the finalists. The championship will not count toward the regular season. Half a million dollars per player is the motivation. One more game for two teams was not a major obstacle for players in the new CBA, sources said. Why should it be for you?
At worst, we get one extra game between two teams that survived pool play and multiple rounds of a single-elimination tournament for the right to compete for something like $10 million split between winning players and coaches. Details about how prize money will be allocated, including among two-way and 10-day players, are still being determined. The $30,000 prize for WNBA players included stipulations for the number of Commissioner's Cup games each played during their inaugural in-season tournament in 2021.
At best, we get 60 regular season games with heightened implications and a single-elimination tournament featuring eight worthy teams, all of which increases interest among players and fans before Christmas. I do not see the downside. Nobody should be complaining about the potential for more meaningful basketball if the alternative is not even trying to improve the early season status quo, regardless of whether or not we are treated to some additional rivalry games, a Finals preview or a high-stakes battle between superstars.
We want to give players more reasons to give a s*** more often, and this could do that.
It is true the Commissioner's Cup has not been a resounding win for the WNBA. The initial marketing effort was a failure. The league sprinkled 10 intraconference games throughout the first half of the 2021 season, often flying under the radar for players, broadcasters and fans, and no single-elimination tournament took place. One team from each conference met in the final prior to the start of the second half of the season, at the tail end of their Olympic break, resulting in a lackluster blowout. Last season saw some improvement.
The NBA's designated pool-play days and eight-team quarterfinals field address those main concerns.
The goal is to create something akin to cup competitions in European soccer. Those are often steeped in decades or even centuries of tradition, but the NBA has to start somewhere. Interest in overseas in-season tournaments is often heightened by the inclusion of teams from lower levels of domestic competition or other countries, and the NBA runs the risk of the novelty wearing thin without introducing similar wrinkles.
Only, here's the thing: The NBA is not married to this or any version of an in-season tournament. Next season will be a trial run, and the league is unlikely to abandon the concept after its initial attempt. That is not to say the parameters will remain the same. Increasing the prize money is on the table, especially if sponsors and media partners invest in the idea, as is adding charitable contributions. (The Las Vegas Aces' 2022 Commissioner's Cup victory benefited ACLU Nevada's ability to secure voting rights in the state.)
Other incentives (i.e., granting an additional draft pick to the tournament winner) have also been discussed. The possibility of including G League or international club teams is not out of the realm of possibility, either. If the tournament is well received and it benefits from shortening the regular season, that can happen, too.
The single-elimination field could be expanded, despite heightened scheduling difficulties, or the entire tournament eventually could be scrapped if it does not improve the health of the league. This is an evolving concept, and anyone shaking their fist in the face of that progress is sabotaging your fun before it starts.
Determination: Fact. The NBA's in-season tournament is a good idea.