The idea goes something like this:
The NBA regular season is long, the top players miss too many games with injuries and the discourse around the game far too often centers solely on championships and not process, creating a system where there’s one success and 29 failures each year. So what if there was a way to add more juice to the regular season, to turn some of the 82 games into events that look and feel different from the regular season?
And with that, after years of prodding led by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the in-season tournament was born.
The Lakers will begin their pool play Friday night in Phoenix against the Suns. They’ll later play Memphis, Utah and Portland. The team with the best record in pool play will advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals along with the other pool winners and a wild-card team from each conference.
The semifinals and finals will be held in Las Vegas, with the players on the winning team earning $500,000 each.
“I think it's great for the league whenever you can play meaningful basketball,” Darvin Ham said. “Obviously, the money matters. The winning purses and the purses all the way down the line, that definitely matters. Any time you can get meaningful basketball this early in the season, I think it's great for the league. I think it's great for our fans. Guys are engaged early, focused and I think it'll be a lot of fun. I think it'll be a mainstay in our league."
Holistically, the tournament is designed to encourage increased competition. The thought is that if you take the best basketball players in the world, people who compete with everything they do from card games on the plane to basketball games, and put a title at stake, it’ll raise the intensity level in these regular-season games.
Realistically, any hope for that will have to come down the road. For now, it’s the cash that has the players’ attention.
“You know, everybody's fighting for playoff position and fighting for obviously the Larry O'Brien, so, that's competitive within itself,” Anthony Davis said. “I think it was more so just for a lot of players resting and doing that during the season. Now, they play, obviously. I don't even think it's the trophy — everybody loves money, put the money in front of them. Especially that amount, you kind of pick it up a little bit.”
For the Lakers, the tournament begins at a time when they need every bit of motivation they can find. They’ve been a historically bad first-quarter team, they’re frustrated with the injury bug that’s kept them from playing a single game at full strength and now, they’ll face a Phoenix team that just got guard Bradley Beal healthy after he missed the start of the year because of a back injury.
“From the shootaround, we've got to lock in,” Rui Hachimura said after the Lakers lost in Houston. “You guys know there's a lot of injuries right now. We've got to be healthy. But at the same time, we can't make excuses. Every team is like that. We've got to get healthy. If somebody is injured and somebody can't play, you know, next man up. Everybody's got to be ready.”
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Friday, though, the Lakers will know they’re in for something different when they walk into the arena, the Suns hosting the game on a purple court (part of the NBA’s plan to make the games feel different). And while the Lakers didn’t get to watch the first batch of games last Friday because they were at a team dinner in Orlando, everyone, even LeBron James, seems open to the possibilities of the in-season tournament.
“I did see some of the clips, some of the courts looked a little funky, but I think it’s great in the sense for the league,” James said. “It spices things up. I did see some of the quotes from some of the players that some of the games felt like a playoff-like atmosphere type intensity, so that’s great in that sense.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.