Running up the score? Youth being served? FIBA World Cup provides clues of how the NBA’s in-season tournament could be a huge success

Canada's Dillon Brooks celebrates victory at the end of the FIBA Basketball World Cup game for third place between Canada and USA in Manila on September 10, 2023. (Photo by SHERWIN VARDELEON / AFP) (Photo by SHERWIN VARDELEON/AFP via Getty Images)

It didn’t require late-night beers or cloaks of secrecy. When talk of a midseason tournament reached the NBA’s echo chamber, coaches and executives were quick to dismiss the concept as nothing more than a gimmick. The league is full of skeptics and basketball curmudgeons who value tradition and proper history over radical change. Then the advent of the play-in tournament — where seeds Nos. 7-10 in each conference draw one-off matchups for the final four playoff berths — resulted in a rousing success.

Now you’ll find plenty of optimism among NBA figures about this year’s inaugural in-season tournament, which begins Nov. 3.

“It just makes it to where anytime you can step on that floor, you can win that basketball game. It makes it more like this,” Dillon Brooks told Yahoo Sports following a Team Canada practice at the FIBA World Cup. “More stress on the game. More priority on it. Overall it’s helping our game, and you get a little money out of it.”

The money will talk. After the league’s 30 teams divide into six pods for group play, the semifinals and championship will be decided in Las Vegas starting Dec. 7, with each player on the winning team getting a $500,000 prize.

Those skeptics can claim that’s a drop in the bucket compared to Damian Lillard’s four-year, $220 million agreement that’s hung over the NBA trade market since July. Players decline contract options and wave goodbye to tens of millions of dollars without blinking. The league’s average annual salary, though, was under $10 million for the 2022-23 campaign. The money for late first-round picks hovers around $3 million. There will be natural incentive for less-experienced teams to chase in-season glory, in addition to building momentum for a rebuild’s first playoff push, which a veteran team such as Golden State does not require.

That means teams like Brooks’ Rockets, who hope to taste the postseason after splurging over $200 million combined to land the veteran wing along with point guard Fred VanVleet. All the way in Manila, amid a quest for Canada’s first FIBA medal since 1936, Brooks even recalled two of the Rockets’ West Group B opponents from top of mind.

“It just stresses those games against Denver, the Clippers, all those games that we have in the in-season tournament,” Brooks said. “It stresses more that we gotta put more effort into those so we can find a way to be on the top of our pool.”

Paolo Banchero agreed. His Orlando Magic are another fledging roster with designs on stamping a greater competitiveness within their conference. After a six-game winning streak in December pushed Jahmal Mosley’s Magic to a 29-28 finish to the 2022-23 campaign, why couldn’t Orlando springboard in-season tournament success into playoff momentum this spring?

The World Cup presented Banchero and the rest of the field’s record 55 NBA players with the closest analog to the league’s new in-season format. Instead of the NBA’s 30 teams, 32 countries were split into eight lettered groups of four. The best two clubs advanced from each World Cup group, as opposed to one team from each NBA group, along with two wild-card teams from each of the league’s conferences. And while the World Cup opening phase allowed some countries wiggle room to drop a game and still move on, any defeat felt like the potential death knell of a tournament run.

“Really understanding the importance of each game. You don’t want to lose,” Banchero told Yahoo Sports following a Team USA practice. “I think it’s gonna be more of a playoff-type environment, where you might have to do different stuff with different teams and really lock in on a player or someone’s personnel each game when you get inside these tournament games.”

By contrast, the league’s regular season can be such a marathon, most NBA coaching staffs install general defensive and offensive principles and grind through 82 games. Teams aren’t afforded much time to devise specific approaches for three different opponents in five nights. “You kinda just go over personnel, but I wouldn’t say you really create a unique game plan for each game,” Banchero said. “It’s just kind of more getting through the year or so. I think it’ll be different with the tournament.”

Another key difference — something that could also carry over from FIBA play: Tournament play is not for gentlemen. Because point differentials were one of several key tiebreakers at the World Cup, countries were more than willing to run up lopsided scores. “In the NBA, you’ll hold the ball. I guess proper respect, you know, honor the game,” Bobby Portis said. “Definitely here [at the World Cup], guys are up 40, they’re trying to get it to 50 and 60.”

There’s a book’s worth of unwritten NBA rules, governing how to win with class and to help your opponent lose with dignity. Viewing those rules more as guidelines or forgetting them altogether, that’s what creates the memorable memes like Brooks notoriously chiding LeBron James during the playoffs. Just wait for him to snarl at Luka Dončić if Houston pulls away from Dallas by a wide margin.

“The point totals really matter. Obviously, you want to win the game,” Portis said, “but I see some [World Cup] teams winning the game and they’re playing right until the last second.”

The in-season tournament tiebreakers begin with head-to-head records, but then include point differentials and total points scored, and could even go down to a random drawing in the unlikely scenario that two or more teams are still tied after comparing 2022-23 regular-season records.

If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. Knicks forward R.J. Barrett admitted to struggling his way through Canada’s World Cup schedule, trying to understand which winners of group play played whom. “It was confusing,” Barrett said with a laugh. The coaching staff helped explain the web of scenarios, as it was Barrett’s first time playing in the competition. “It’s been an amazing experience, and the in-season tournament is gonna be kinda similar,” said the Knicks wing. “It’s gonna be the first time out. So I’m interested to see how that works.”

“Every time you have a chance to compete at a high level, it makes you a better coach and a better player,” added Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez, the Sacramento Kings’ lead assistant. “The in-season tournament is going to be very different.”

Pacers All-Star engine Tyrese Haliburton is looking forward to a level playing field. Indiana bills as another upstart franchise, one that fell just short of last year’s play-in and spent big in free agency by adding impact veteran Bruce Brown and has much to gain from a weighty in-season run. Look at preseason darling Oklahoma City, which won a play-in game against New Orleans. How about the Detroit Pistons?

“It’s something for the young teams to compete, especially early in the year,” Haliburton told Yahoo Sports. “Younger teams and the teams that are expected to be worse, the playoffs, over 82 games, by the end of the year, you know, you’re not making the playoffs. Whereas with the in-season tournament, everybody has an opportunity to win. If you get hot early, you really have a chance.”

Haliburton, though, has one critique of the new format.

“I think the greatest incentive for everybody to do it would be an automatic playoff bid,” he said. “If it was a playoff spot, I think everyone would take it very, very serious, right? I think the older teams would take it serious. But then it might … what would [the winning team] do then?”

Here, Haliburton admitted the challenges of such an award.

“I don't know how you’d necessarily do it, that’s really hard to do,” Haliburton said. “By the end of the year, if the oldest team won, they’d be like, ‘We’re not playing for real. We’re the eight seed, we don’t care, we’re in.’ That’d be the only bad effect.

“But I like that they’re experimenting with things. Who knows what it will look like five years from now?”

We’ll get to see how everything looks in just a few weeks.