NBA proves an in-season tournament is viable, but it remains a work in progress

LAS VEGAS — The NBA has long perfected its traveling circus. There is no striped tent or bearded lady, but all it takes is a podium, a blue backdrop and the silhouette of Jerry West to make any arena feel like the greatest show on hardwood has rolled into town. Early December marked brand new territory for all the league’s bells and whistles and corporate extravagance, and yet this week’s scene felt so familiar, some spiritual mix of NBA Finals sheen and the spectacle of an All-Star Weekend.

The familiar setting of Sin City certainly helped matters, where buzz about potential expansion into Las Vegas will flutter anytime the league touches the Strip, especially when LeBron James holds a microphone and even when Adam Silver hands the game’s all-time leading scorer the first in-season tournament MVP — after James’ Lakers claimed the inaugural NBA Cup on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena. At center court and before the world, Silver broke the fourth wall and teased James that the trophy and the championship’s prize money doesn’t come with a stake in some eventual 31st franchise.

Whether his on-going ownership campaign fueled James’ impassioned play throughout Los Angeles’ 7-0 run to the league’s first in-season crown, or whether you want to insert some joke about Michael Jordan never adding an NBA Cup to his résumé, James’ buy-in to this experimental competition may be the most essential ingredient to the event’s unabashed success. Some version of this tournament has been Silver’s brainchild throughout his tenure as commissioner that’s now two months shy of spanning a full decade. And don’t forget, the first iteration of Silver’s other big calendar swing, the play-in tournament, also featured James and the marquee Lakers storming the NBA’s newest stage.

It will be noteworthy to experience the IST’s success — from ticket sales and attendance to television viewership — if and when James and the Lakers don’t bring droves of attention to this event. But it’s unequivocal that the league’s first attempt to insert another competition into its regular season was triumphant in terms of conversation and greater intrigue. There was general skepticism that teams would bring heightened performance to a tournament manufactured yesterday. Not to mention criticism that came after the NBA revealed the IST would simply count all games as part of its normal slate of 82, aside from the extra title contest that put $500,000 into the winning players’ pockets. In retrospect, all this seems like a low-risk gamble on behalf of the league that paid instant dividends. How much it pays in added broadcast rights remains to be seen during the NBA’s upcoming round of streaming negotiations, but the extra juice in the league’s annual fall slog against the NFL was worth the squeeze.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura, left, celebrates with forward LeBron James after James was named NBA In-Season Tournament MVP, after the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers 123-109 in the championship game in the NBA basketball In-Season Tournament on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Las Vegas.(AP Photo/Ian Maule)
The NBA and its fans seem happy with the success of the in-season tournament, but it remains a work in progress. (AP Photo/Ian Maule)

Now that it’s over, everything will be up for review and improvement. The league will convene with team representatives and the players association and heed any feedback far and wide. “Frankly, all suggestions are welcome,” Silver said Saturday, peering directly into a camera during his state-of-the-tournament press availability.

There’s been no shortage of critiques and ideas on how to fine-tune the in-season tournament. The NBA’s audacious decision to slap full-colored courts across the league, culminating with a blue and red floor during the semifinals and championship game, sparked polarizing reviews from fans and team personnel alike. Silver went on record Thursday stating he’s a huge proponent of the unorthodox playing surfaces and went so far as suggesting the NBA could do something of similar effect for the Finals in June. Multiple executives from several teams told Yahoo Sports their clubs plans to lobby Silver’s office for a larger hand in the creative design and schemes for their respective home floors. The slipperiness of the paint also brought some cause for concern, with tricky oil- and water-based finishing coats, sources said, that left IST runner-up Indiana’s floor at first feeling like the skating rink it appeared to mimic and rendered the Mavericks’ court unusable throughout its IST home games.

One of the most checkered elements of the tournament was the use of teams’ cumulative point differentials through four group-play games that served as the tiebreaker to determine knockout-round seedings and which teams advanced as each conference’s fourth wild-card candidate for the quarterfinals. Point differentials are a standard tiebreaker in international play, most recently in this summer’s FIBA World Cup. But the concept, which theoretically encourages teams to run up scores as much as possible rather than running out the clock and emptying their bench, runs in direct contrast to the unwritten rules of the NBA.

“I'm not ready necessarily to move away from it,” Silver said, “but if ultimately there's going to be a sense, particularly from our American fans, that somehow it is an indication of poor sportsmanship, that's not a good idea for us to be doing it.”

Many players disliked it, sources said, in early review by the union. Several league figures have suggested putting a single-game cap on how many points a team can add to their differential, perhaps something like 25 points per contest. Silver himself alluded to a similar framework. “Maybe there's some ways to tweak that where it only matters up to a certain point.” One coach told Yahoo Sports he would prefer to have the tiebreaker instead be points allowed, which could present the inverse of the point differential problem, and therefore encourage teams to defend until the clock strikes zero, as opposed to jacking up shots while opponents have already been brutally beaten. Other league personnel have offered the idea of quarters won, eliminating any end-of-game pressures.

There’s further thought floating among NBA personnel to make the tournament bigger and longer. Maybe there could be more teams advancing to the knockout round, where the single-elimination stakes are what really separated this year’s IST games from rudimentary regular-season outings.

Plenty of team executives are interested in adding greater incentive to winning the NBA Cup along with the prize money. Why can’t the players and coaches — and perhaps front-office figures in future years as well — take home extra cash while also awarding the team some further advantage with playoff implications? The league did not want to have the IST potentially disrupt its postseason dynamics, and yet that’s been a resounding piece of feedback among team personnel. If a guaranteed spot in the playoffs or play-in tournament would be too rich a reward and could potentially further devalue the regular season, maybe the NBA could offer something as small as one game in the standings to the victor of the championship match, which could effectively give the IST winner an automatic tiebreaker in postseason seeding.

The schedule of the tournament will likely be the most fluid aspect of the event in terms of potential change. Several team figures on the ground in Las Vegas posited all this early momentum for a young group like the Pacers could create some form of let-down going back to normal regular-season games. What if the tournament was more of a midseason event that led into the trade deadline and All-Star Break, once the NBA’s eye-ball competition against the NFL wanes with less football in January and February?

Monday night’s quarterfinals went up against "Monday Night Football." Thursday’s games in Las Vegas went up against "Thursday Night Football," and the 2 p.m. PT start time for the first of two semifinals made for a less than lively pregame atmosphere. Silver confirmed the NBA worked backward from scheduling Saturday night’s championship game with ABC, so the league needed a rest day between its semifinals matchups and time for travel between the in-market quarterfinals before that.

“One of the issues we can discuss with the players association or teams, do you add a couple days to the season to help relieve some of the pressure here?” Silver said. “There's a bunch of different things we can look at. But I think we knew the first time around that some of these windows would not be ideal from a television standpoint.”

The group play schedule also presented a problem. With an uneven number of five teams in each group, one inevitably was forced to watch the final night of preliminary play without any control of its destiny. In Group C, for example, the Celtics were able to draw the struggling Chicago Bulls on the final Tuesday night of action, while the Orlando Magic, who beat the Celtics, were sitting at home twiddling their thumbs.

Alas these are all good problems to have. The NBA and its partners and teams have found an equitable answer to bringing more stakes and fanfare to its regular season. Any added ingenuity that stems from this point further can only benefit the in-season tournament that appears well on its way to stamping itself among league lore.