It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but there is nothing flattering about the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, a wanting attempt at replicating the excitement of European club soccer in-season cups. The tournament is forcing a square peg into the world’s preeminent roundball enterprise.
Mercifully, Tuesday night was the final round of the inane In-Season Tournament’s group play. Do the teams care? Do the players care? Do the fans care? Who knows?
What I do know is the tournament is esoteric, convoluted, and confusing. It’s a popsicle headache for no reason with no real stakes and too many flaws. The winner gets the NBA Cup trophy and what amounts to pocket change for star players ($500,000 per player).
This is a vanity project for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, a soccer devotee, the result of European club soccer admiration and envy. Unfortunately, instead of reproducing that excitement, the NBA has just repacked regular-season games with bad floors, bad feelings, and incentive for point-padding victories.
In the top domestic soccer leagues around the globe, the best of which reside in Europe, there are in-season league and domestic governing association club soccer competitions. The latter, like England’s FA Cup, are a bit like the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with Cinderellas from lower divisions taking on established top-level clubs such as Liverpool or Manchester City. Think if a G League team drew the Denver Nuggets in a tournament.
But the reason those soccer competitions work is that those leagues don’t have playoffs, a uniquely North American idea. Whichever team finishes top of the table in the regular season is the league champion. The End. The in-season cups provide teams with something else to signify a successful season.
The NBA already has an in-season tournament worth watching. It’s called the NBA playoffs. That’s why the new In-Season Tournament is useless and extraneous unless the league is willing to fix some of its flaws and give it genuine stakes.
Let’s start with those stakes. The tournament would have more meaning if it had more effect on the playoffs. My proposal: The winner of the tournament automatically secures one of the 10 playoff spots in each conference, guaranteed a berth in at least the play-in round.
That would take it up a notch since winning the tournament would have meaning beyond money and a shiny basketball bauble. Last year, the Heat were in the play-in round as the eighth seed. They lost their first game in the play-in but ended up advancing to the NBA Finals, defeating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. So, a play-in berth has established value.
The primary flaw of the tournament is the tiebreaker setup in the group stage, which features six groups of five teams. The sheer stupidity of using point differential as the second tiebreaker after head-to-head record has been glaringly exposed.
The Celtics went into Tuesday night’s game against the Bulls knowing that they needed to win by at least 23 points and have the Nets defeat the Raptors by fewer than 15 points to advance to the quarterfinals by winning their group. (The wild-card machinations were brain-breaking on a Mac Jones level.)
Goal differential as a prominent tiebreaker in soccer competitions makes sense because of the scarcity of scoring plays. But in a sport where points are plentiful and teams routinely combine for more than 200 a game, it feels pointless to have spots in the single-elimination quarterfinal round determined by point differential.
It would be more competitive if you held a dunk contest or a game of H-O-R-S-E to break multiple-way ties in the group stage.
It also encourages displays of poor sportsmanship, as teams are incentivized to pour it on when the outcome has already been determined.
Recently, Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan took umbrage with a 3-point attempt by Toronto’s Pascal Siakam in a situation where the Raptors usually would’ve dribbled out the clock. The Toronto bench was screaming at Siakam to try to score to pad the point differential. DeRozan barked at Toronto coach Darko Rajakovic, who replied, “In-Season Tournament.”
DeRozan picked up a second technical arguing with the Raptors coaches and was ejected with 1.4 seconds left. After the game, he made his feelings known.
“I don’t care about no In-Season Tournament points, none of that,” DeRozan told reporters. “Just the respect for the game; if the roles were flip-flopped and I had the ball, hold it.”
If this competition has a credo, it should be DeRozan’s “I don’t care about no In-Season Tournament points.”
The Celtics were similarly miffed about the Magic plumping up their margin of victory to 17 points — handing the Green their largest loss of the season — last Friday in an In-Season Tournament contest.
Engendering hard feelings, running up the score, and deciding advancement via garbage-time points do not reflect an appealing marketing mechanism. It also flies in the face of competitive integrity and qualifies as a bit hypocritical in a league that has cracked down on scheduled rest for star players in the name of competitive integrity and fan advocacy.
Another issue with the tournament is that it’s disruptive of the regular season for fans. The teams eliminated from the group-play stage can’t just sit around while the quarterfinals on Dec. 4-5 and the semifinals (Dec. 7) and final (Dec. 9) play out in Las Vegas.
The 22 teams that fail to advance will play regular-season games on Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 against opponents determined using a formula based on group-play standings.
So, fans went into Tuesday night not knowing when, where, and whom their teams would be playing the week of Dec. 3. That’s not exactly ideal for those planning to attend games or making plans around being able to watch their team. It’s definitely not fan-friendly or wise at a time when consumers expect products on their terms and time frames and do not expect to be inconvenienced.
Ultimately, all these issues coalesce to raise the existential question about the tournament: Is it worth the time/inconvenience? If the answer isn’t a clear yes — and it’s not — then you have a problem.
However, the In-Season Tournament isn’t going away (too bad). Silver is too committed to the idea. So the fixes need to be in for next year to make the tournament make more sense and have real meaning.