It was evident the moment Adam Silver took over as NBA commissioner in February 2014 that this in-season tournament would become a reality.
Silver has spent years preparing NBA faithful for this possibility, adopting the idea from European soccer to give a boost to the regular season, and it does need a boost.
What has disappointed Silver in recent years is the devaluation of the regular season by certain clubs and certain players. Kyrie Irving said years ago he wasn’t an 82-game-per-season player and then doubled down on those statements by saying the regular season is simply a precursor for the playoffs, meaning the games really didn’t matter.
Inasmuch as Irving may have a point, NBA governors and the league itself become alarmed when there is a perception the real season doesn’t begin until April. And they ask themselves why these players are being paid so handsomely for 82 games if they are saving themselves for the playoffs.
Even the NBA reducing the number of back-to-back sets and eliminating four-game-in-five-nights did little to prevent load management. When the new collective bargaining agreement was up for discussion, Silver insisted that the in-season tournament become an annual staple and the NBA Players Association approved the idea.
The in-season tournament will consist of six groups of five teams that will play each other once — those games are regular season games that will also count toward the tournament. The teams with the best records in each group will advance along with two wild-card teams to create a quarterfinal on Dec. 4 and 5 and then the semifinals and finals on Dec. 7 and 9, respectively, in Las Vegas.
Each player on the winning team receives $500,000 with players on the runners-up getting $200,000. The semifinal losers get $100,000 and quarterfinal losers $50,000.
Of course, $500,000 will mean more to a player such as Payton Pritchard and Dalano Banton than Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. And there is a possibility of teams managing the load of their top players during this tournament, especially if a particular organization doesn’t prioritize winning the NBA Cup because it offers no playoff incentive.
The winner of the NBA Cup is simply the winner of the league’s midseason tournament. There is no automatic playoff bye, nothing that encourages teams to win besides the nature of competition, and perhaps rivalry. An astute move by the NBA was to separate the six groups by conference, meaning the championship will consist of a Western Conference team against an Eastern Conference team.
The Celtics, who are grouped with the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets, are overwhelming favorites to win their group, although they lost a combined five times to the Bulls and Magic last season.
For a team like Boston, with championship aspirations, it should take this midseason tournament seriously. Tatum and Brown don’t load manage and Tatum spoke to summer campers last month about the importance of playing in every game. Wouldn’t it be appropriate for the team tied for the most NBA championships — the Celtics — to win the first in-season tournament?
Would winning the in-season tournament catapult the Celtics to another level, one they never quite reached in Joe Mazzulla’s first season?
The in-season tournament is here and isn’t going to be abolished anytime soon. So NBA fans should at least attempt to get excited about high-level basketball in early December. What the NBA will eventually learn is how such a tournament will compete with the NFL schedule.
If the Celtics do reach the Dec. 7 semifinals in Las Vegas, Boston fans will have to make a choice because the Patriots are in Pittsburgh that same night for what could be a crucial game for their playoff hopes. And the NBA will conduct the championship game in competition with the Heisman Trophy ceremony on Dec. 9.
The NBA wants to be more significant before their Christmas Day slate. In previous years, the league gladly acknowledged that the general sports fans and NFL fanatics didn’t notice NBA regular-season games until the five-game Christmas Day schedule. The in-season tournament will give the NBA an to determine how really popular it is and what actual enthusiasm the competition will generate five months before the playoffs begin.
The other three major professional sports don’t have an in-season tournament, but the WNBA does and its Commissioner Cup has been successful because it has pitted the league’s top two teams in what could serve as Finals preview.
The financial incentive has worked effectively for WNBA players because of their embarrassingly low salaries, but how will fans react to NBA players receiving more financial incentives when the league’s highest-paid player, Stephen Curry, earns $51 million this season. What’s more, 18 NBA players will earn at least $40 million this season.
These standout players won’t be playing the in-season tournament for the money. There has to be a level of pride generated by the competition. Players will have to become more motivated by regular-season games and the chance to win a trophy for the first time on a grand stage. The in-season tournament may be a foreign idea to those of us who mostly follow American sports, but it’s worth giving this concept a chance and perhaps it eventually becomes a popular tradition.