NBA in-season tournament aims for more early-season engagement without impacting teams' approaches

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has long pushed for the in-season tournament. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has long pushed for the in-season tournament. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

LAS VEGAS — The NBA is hoping for buy-in for its newest and arguably most ambitious endeavor, the in-season tournament slated to begin next season.

Buy-in from the players, coaches and fans — all hoping they’ll care. The risk is the reverse happening, that by implementing pool play similar to a soccer format which will culminate in a championship on Dec. 9 in Las Vegas, a message will be sent that the league itself doesn’t care about early-season basketball.

Traditionalists will cringe at the 82-game season being slightly disrupted, but it feels like the constant player movement has ripped just a tad at that traditional fabric. The idea has been kicked around for years, and finally, it’ll be implemented, pushed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

The nuances have been explained, but the bottom line is the NBA loves the effect of the play-in tournament and it’s around to stay, as it has created so much meaningful basketball in the post All-Star break that teams were in full lather for three months before the playoffs began.

Getting players and fans amped for those early winter nights by extra stakes on Tuesday and Friday nights from Nov. 3-28 (except for Election Day) is what the league hopes to accomplish here.

The play-in fits right into the rhythm of the regular season, while this is a lot more disruptive. The prize money for each player ($500,000) could be an incentive to curb the load management — hard to explain given early-season games haven’t produced much wear and tear anyway — but it’s clear the NBA is looking long term and not just in the immediate here.

NBA senior vice president Evan Wasch, creator of the play-in tournament, said there are five measurable metrics for success: viewership for group play and the knockout round relative to normal regular season play, attendance, social media analysis, direct fan feedback and feedback from the players and teams.

“The biggest work comes after it’s done,” NBA senior VP Joe Dumars said on a recent call with select reporters. “How can we make this better? What did we get right? What did we get wrong? It’s gonna be interesting to hear the feedback from this, because that’s where you can improve and make this a much better product.”

Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat advanced from the play-in tournament all the way to the 2023 NBA Finals. (Bryan Cereijo/Getty Images)

“There’s the question of the ‘why’ and whether it’ll work or not,” Wasch said. “Most general managers didn’t necessarily care about that. What they cared about was, 'this isn’t gonna take away from my team’s chase of the [championship].' And so it can’t be materially disruptive in any way. We talked about versions where there was long breaks in the season to play this, and GMs thought that was too far.”

Wasch believes having the tournament games baked into the schedule, with the pool play and format before teams advancing to the knockout round, won’t affect the standings or teams’ approaches negatively.

Plus, the fact the NBA is entering into a new media rights deal that will take effect in two years cannot be dismissed. This is something they can sell to television partners or streaming companies, believing it’ll be such a hit everyone will benefit financially.

“Then that will obviously enter to the benefit of general managers, coaches, players, you know, through BRI (basketball related income),” Wasch said. “So, our ability to explain why this was so important as a new tentpole for the league, combined with a minimally disruptive approach that we’ve taken, is really what got folks on board.”

Neither Dumars nor Wasch would dare say every team and every general manager is on board for this, but the league’s ambitious view is that it becomes such a regular part of NBA life that it’s second nature in time — that incoming players don’t even think of this as something new but an added early-season incentive, and a trip to Las Vegas in early December for their troubles.

Wasch used other sports as a guide, like tennis and golf having separate majors through the year that brings out the best of the best, but the rhythm of a basketball season is totally different.

They haven’t discussed an Elam Ending or incorporating international teams into this setup quite yet, but with Silver and his affections for other sports, nothing can be counted out. The NBA hasn’t been afraid to mess with things on the edges, such as the All-Star Game format, which Wasch used as a “perfect example” in getting both players and fans to care about in 2020.

That All-Star weekend was directly in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s unexpected death and in Michael Jordan’s adopted hometown of Chicago — and the fourth quarter of that game produced compelling drama that really hasn’t been seen since in the midseason showcase.

LeBron James shoots over Trae Young during the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Huh)

“There was a perfect storm of events and changes leading up to that 2020 All-Star Game that created one of the most competitive games we’ve ever had, and for anyone in the arena, the energy was palpable,” Wasch said. “The entire crowd standing, hearts racing, viewership off the charts. Again, [it] didn’t mean anything. There was no outcome to that All-Star Game more so than anything else. But with players competing at that level, fans were conditioned that they should care about it. And we think it filters down from players and teams.”

What will determine this as a true success will be the matchups. If there’s an extra December helping of the marquee teams we only see match up twice a year, or having the likes of LeBron James and Stephen Curry go at it an extra time outside of the normal schedule, people will flock to the TV screens just for the novelty and curiosity of it.

If it’s lesser-known teams or players going through the motions on those Tuesday and Friday nights, leading to a ho-hum final four heading to Las Vegas, Silver will have egg on his face and the league will have to reevaluate.

But it’s clear the league feels like it has to do something to spice up the regular season, which feels a little weird on its face alone.

The game itself should be enough, but one supposes to give the NBA credit for trying — now it’s up to everyone else to care.