The NBA In-Season Tournament – How Does It Work and Why Does It Matter?
As a fan who is wildly enamored with European football and basketball alike, the NBA debuting their In-Season Tournament this season is something that feels quite fascinating to me. For new fans of soccer, it is not the easiest concept to grasp that there are multiple competitions that go on at one time, and compared to sports in America where you work all season towards an elimination playoffs and one big trophy, the concept of multiple awards feels a bit watered down. There are plenty of concerns that have been made quite vocal by members of the media when this idea that was a rumored proposal for years came to fruition as a reality last year, and I definitely hear the concerns.
European football compared to the National Basketball Association have its fair share of differences. The NBA has had a problem over the last five years with resting players and lower-end clubs throwing away games for better draft capital. The season itself for professional basketball does not last nearly as long as the football season outside of the United States, but it is one of the longer ones in American professional sports that only leads to one trophy at the end of the campaign for the teams competing.
European football is used to having multiple competitions a year as opposed to just one, with several of their competitions having storied histories depending on the country, as well as European-wide contests with all of these tournaments run by different governing bodies. The size and scale of the competitions in Europe are so expansive compared to the NBA, with lower division sides having a shot against the big payroll clubs in these mid-season competitions. Compared to the NBA, the 30 teams are not changing and the salary cap keeps the playing field level despite history favoring only a few teams throughout the league’s 77-year history.
The In-Season Tournament is a source of disruption this early in the season that has the potential to make things much more serious for a league that is not taken seriously by the casual hoops fan until after Christmas or even after the NFL plays out the Super Bowl. The tournament’s games still count toward all of these team’s regular season records, and the league has even allowed for time to make the tournament games themselves count toward your record until the competition reaches the final stage. Adam Silver and company have gotten creative with how the schedule shakes out and still allow for this competition to take place, and I think it is not that crazy of an idea at all no matter what the talking heads might have to say about it.
How Does The NBA In-Season Tournament Work?
The In-Season Tournament is made up of six groups of five teams each, divided into three groups a piece in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference. The groups were drawn at random, and the teams will play each other one time with each club getting two home games and two on the road. The In-Season Tournament games take place throughout the entire month of November, with the first games starting on Friday, November 3 before the final Group Stage games end on Tuesday, November 28. There will be seven dedicated days on Fridays and Tuesdays throughout the month where those NBA regular season games will also count as tournament Group Stage games.
Once the teams have played all four of their games, the winner of each group gets into the tournament bracket. The final remaining spots will be considered “wild card” teams, and those will consist of the two teams with the best record in Group Play from the East and West. With four teams from each conference, the bracket is now set, and the games begin on Monday, December 4, and Tuesday, December 5. The tournament goes on that entire first full week of December, with neutral site semi-finals taking place on Thursday, December 7 before the championship game on Saturday, December 9.
You may have noticed that during this week at the start of December, your favorite team is likely missing some games or presumably had some time off. This will not be the case, as the 22 teams who did not make the tournament will play one another on Wednesday, December 6, and Friday, December 8. This is due to the 8 tournament teams having their tournament games count as regular season matchups towards their 82-game season record, with the championship game being the one exception to that. For the clubs who do not make it out of the quarterfinals, they will also play on that Friday against the other losing team from their own conference.
The NBA has done a good job of meticulously planning how to make this tournament happen effectively without adding games on top of the already lengthy regular season that stretches from October to April. The televising strategy behind the games is also solid for the actual tournament, but the league could have done a better job of making sure more Group Stage games are televised as they stick with just having their usual two televised games on that Tuesday and Friday slot, which was already happening for the most part on TNT and ESPN most weeks. If the first iteration of the In-Season Tournament turns out to be a success, maybe we see more of these games being televised in the future. However, having every single game of the 8-team tournament be televised is still a lot of fun and I believe that teams will take it much more seriously than many anticipate.
Why Should NBA Teams Care?
Oh, so the $1,000,000 prize handed out to each NBA player is not enough incentive for you? Yeah, me neither as a spectator, but I’ll gladly take it myself. The reason I believe that players are going to care about this is going to solely depend on who performs well in the 2023 iteration of the NBA In-Season Tournament. You may wonder what I mean by that, as a week-and-a-half into the season it looks like it’s the Celtics or Nuggets competition to lose at +950 and +1200 to win the contest respectively.
I believe that the In-Season Tournament provides a number of opportunities for NBA teams depending on the club. There are different levels of franchises in different phases of their quest for the NBA championship that could all largely benefit from competing at the highest level in this tournament while for the most part, every team is close to 100% healthy. With full health rosters and seasons too early to tell how they will go direction-wise, there is every reason in the world for all 30 clubs to go all out in this contest whether they care about the money or not.
For squads like the Nuggets, Celtics, Bucks, Clippers, Suns, and Lakers, the NBA In-Season Tournament is an opportunity to go against the best of the best if you make it into the tournament stage and allows you to see where your club stands against some competition you’ll likely meet again this spring. This could also be the tier of teams that many people consider to be a risk to sit out some of these games, but why would any of these clubs who are contending for a title rest games this early on when an early regular season lead can help give some cushion for playoff seeding later?
Teams like the Sixers, Warriors, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Heat, Knicks, and Kings get to look at their squad and closely examine what they’ve got. If you are in this tier that many consider to be a notch below the title contenders, you likely have the potential to make a move and propel yourself into that upper echelon. Playing all out in the In-Season Tournament opens up much more visibility to where you may be weak, where you can improve, and where you are great as clubs continue to work towards figuring out who is who and what assets they could acquire this winter to get closer to their goal.
Another contributing factor for the tier below the title contenders is the possibility that one of them wins the tournament altogether. What if an exciting team that is built on young talent like the Cleveland Cavaliers or Sacramento Kings actually goes out there and wins the whole thing? This boost that such a young franchise with lots of potential would receive from getting their taste of gold could fuel a lot more positive reinforcement for the rest of the campaign, and potentially into next season. With the tournament being built on a single elimination format, the possibility of a non-title contender making a run for the In-Season Tournament championship is much more likely than for one of these teams to pull off multiple seven-game series upsets as the Miami Heat did in the 2023 Playoffs.
In the middle of the pack, you have your teams who have their drawbacks but ultimately have a path forward in this competition if a couple of things break their way and their main star player blows up throughout the tournament. These teams include the Mavericks, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Hawks, Thunder, and Pacers. All of these teams have that very weird outside chance of victory, and all of them have odds around +300 to +500 to come out on top of their respective groups throughout the month of November. With the In-Season Tournament competition being so new, and some of these teams being in the middle of the road odds-wise in their groups, this feels like where the value might be if you are looking to place a flier on a team to win as all of these guys are near the 20/1 or greater range to lift the trophy.
Will the NBA In-Season Tournament be Fun to Watch?
I believe that this competition is the breath of fresh air that the NBA needed to bring interest to the league during a time when sports fans are totally fixated on football. There has been a continued narrative building from sports fans who do not watch the NBA that the regular season does not matter at all, and that the NBA is not fun to watch until the playoffs. Well casuals, you have gotten your wish – we will have competitive basketball in November and December to get you ready for those Christmas Day NBA games that I know you are blindly betting on!
NBA teams are about to get a look at what competition looks like when squads are full of energy off of an energizing offseason, and close to full health with the lack of season-long injuries nagging at players as they do when April rolls around. With more than just a regular season game on the line, I will be interested to see if the fans buy in and show out at their home arenas on Tuesdays and Fridays these next several weeks. For teams that finished in the NBA lottery last season that are used to having an emptier stadium during the week, I think this gives them an added taste at competition especially in the first games of the group stage where anything can happen and all 30 teams come into the competition with a fresh slate.
The league has never been in a better spot talent wise since the golden age that many of our fathers talk about or the people on TV laud about on daytime television. Every single NBA team has a player or two that can be considered a star or superstar, and the young talent coming in year after year in the draft has provided depth and role players to every squad that leaves no lack of entertainment night in and night out. This is the perfect time for the league to try something new and for the fans to embrace the possibility of such talented teams whether they are young or old to take a chance and win something bigger than the regular season they are used to watching during this time of year.
For decades now it has been hard to keep American professional sports teams bought in for the entire season when you get to the end and your team is not playing for anything if they have not had the season go their way. This tournament offers a completely different outlook on things as every single club gets a shot at a competition other than the traditional 82 games, while still having these games count towards that full season record in the end. It is going to be weird at first to see this level of effort in the fall for the NBA, but I think it will be a refreshing and reinvigorating energy that surrounds these four games for each team that adds in a brand new element of spirit to these contests.
Whether you are a diehard NBA fan or casual hoops fan tuning in this Friday or later on in November, I encourage you to come in with an open mind and to give this new format a shot. Yes, it is not going to have the folds of history and tales of the past that European football fans have been able to tell for centuries regarding their competitions. However, you have to start somewhere, and I applaud the NBA for being bold and trying something new when the league is in this current state. Let’s embrace this new era of the league, and enjoy this new competition as the new opportunity to fall in love further with the beautiful game of basketball.
THIS IS AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY ANDY CHASE
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