2023 In-Season Tournament

NBA goes bold with flashy announcement of In-Season Tournament

The NBA delivers details on the inaugural In-Season Tournament during a star-laden presentation in Las Vegas, the future home of its championship game.

All 30 teams compete for the NBA Cup starting Nov. 3, with 8 teams advancing into the Knockout Rounds.

LAS VEGAS – In this town of craps tables and shrieking slot machines, the payoff or fallout from any wager is immediate. You either collect your chips and head to the cashier’s window or wipe your tears and head home.

In the case of the NBA and its newest and perhaps boldest dice roll, the result won’t be known at least until Dec. 9, coincidently here in Las Vegas, when it’s time to crown the champion of the inaugural In-Season Tournament and more importantly tabulate the feedback from it all.

And even then … it could take a few more years to peel away the whole truth and nothing but.

Will this tournament become a gimmick … or a (regular season) game changer? The league and commissioner Adam Silver are enthusiastically betting on the latter, which of course largely depends on the buy-in from players and coaches and the level of engagement from fans.

In the meantime, until everyone waits and sees five months from now, the NBA went ahead and won the launch Saturday with an official announcement made with Vegas in mind. The splashy made-for-TV show was done with the help of Cirque du Soleil dancers and a handful of Jabbawockeez (unfortunately, Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t part of the act, as he famously was during the 2009 All-Star Game intros).

The NBA can only hope the In-season tournament seduces everyone just as easily as it did with this presentation. The league trotted out Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero and the 7-foot-3 teenage attraction known as Victor Wembanyama, all of them young and considered the future of the league, to assist Silver on stage. The reaction from a large audience of fans at the Mandalay Bay was positive.

Steve Kerr, Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero and Victor Wembanyama help unveil the NBA Cup.

Silver called the In-Season Tournament “a perfect opportunity for a global league like the NBA, and it’s a perfect fit for our game.”

Then the commissioner, right from the jump, cautioned that “traditions take time” and added “we are seeing new innovations, and now is the time for this NBA In-Season Tournament.”

Steve Kerr, the four-time championship coach of the Warriors, pledged his acceptance right away, saying, “It’s going to add a layer of excitement and energy.”

Clearly, this is an attempt by the league to add another meaty event to the basketball calendar, which is rather rich. The NBA has had great success with Christmas Day games, All-Star Weekend, the Play-In Tournament, the Draft Lottery, NBA Finals, the Draft, free agency, and Summer League, all of which are heavily anticipated and digested by the basketball audience.

The difference here is the In-Season Tournament is designed to rev up the regular season and therefore diffuse the notion of the games not being particularly meaningful. That last part is a bit of a fallacy; teams must obviously win games to reach the playoffs, and only the top six in each conference are guaranteed spots, with four to follow from the Play-In Tournament.

The In-Season Tournament adds a touch more incentive to win, particularly in the early stages of the season, and especially given the chance of a financial payoff — $500,000 to each player on the tournament champion, a nice chunk for 48 minutes of overtime work.

And because the tournament games are baked into the schedule, there’s not much of an inconvenience for teams. The last two teams standing and vying for the NBA Cup will only play one additional game (which won’t count in the standings), and again, will do so with a jackpot at stake.

Malika Andrews and Richard Jefferson share their excitement for and look ahead to the 2023 In-Season Tournament.

Yes, for anyone who fears any sort of scheduling chaos, Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics and one of the point persons for the tournament, called it “additive but not disruptive.” A key part of that will be the potential for back-to-back games during the early stages of the tournament — known as Group Play — which could influence how coaches cope with those situations. Normally these coaches steer toward caution.

“The commitment we made to teams is that we would do everything in our power to avoid the group play games being the second night of back-to-backs. It will likely be impossible to avoid some of them being the first night of back-to-backs,” Wasch said. “It is probably infeasible for us to deliver a schedule where they’re not the first or second night of (any) back-to-backs. So the commitment we hope to achieve at this point is to avoid second nights of back-to-backs.”

In the bigger picture, the league simply wants to improve its value and offer more to fans, sponsors and especially network partners. It’s no coincidence that the tournament begins two years before the current TV deals end in the summer of 2025. If the tournament has punch and delivers higher regular-season ratings and gets the same favorable reviews as the creation that preceded it (the Play-In Tournament), the league will have more to sell and the broadcast rights could be massive.

As Wasch said: “We believe this will be a revenue-generator for the league.”

Perhaps it’s not totally accurate to describe the In-Season Tournament as a risk. The league has nothing to lose here, and if anything, there’s more danger in doing nothing. Give Silver and franchise owners a nod for being creative and proactive and sensitive to the perception of the regular season. They’re well aware that standing still equals a step backward. The healthiest companies are forward-thinking, not complacent, and don’t take their customers for granted.

Also, virtually all ideas in any business, especially those that challenge the status quo, are initially met with a degree of skepticism. Steve Jobs, for example, certainly heard smirks when he suggested a camera be included in every Apple cell phone.

When Major League Baseball heard complaints from its base about the sluggish pace of play, the league instituted a pitch clock and other tweaks starting this season. The traditionalists howled, but MLB also knew it had to grab and obey the attention span of a younger demographic –and those changes have indeed accelerated the game and made it more popular.

NBA In-Season Tournament 2023

NBA In-Season Tournament 2023, Group Draw Results

The NBA’s version of that specific tweak was in 1954, when Danny Biasone created the concept of the 24-second shot clock, still the most impactful innovation in league history. Over the following six decades, the NBA tinkered with improvements, all designed to roust appreciation for the game and elevate the product in some manner.

Such as: Widening the lane (1964) to essentially expand the floor and prevent big men (mainly Wilt Chamberlain) from camping out; the 3-point shot (1979) which changed the game, though not immediately; the inception of the Draft Lottery (1984) to eliminate the need for a coin flip; tampering with the All-Star Game (2020), which had gotten stale; and so forth.

Not every idea had staying power, however. The one with the shortest shelf life –the experimental use of a synthetic basketball (2006), which came and went in a span of three months – stands as the NBA’s equivalent of New Coke.

So there is a bit of a PR gamble with the In-Season Tournament ,and the NBA expects and even anticipates some blowback at least initially, until the pudding has proof.

The reflexive reaction to the league attempting to enhance the regular season is that this is somehow a response to load management and teams being overly cautious with players dealing with even the slightest of injuries, perhaps to the detriment of winning. And the league is indeed sensitive to teams that habitually sit starters and other important rotational players.

Yet the In-Season Tournament has been in discussions, Wasch said, for 15 years, which predates load management.

Joe Dumars, the former two-time champion with the Pistons and currently the league’s NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, predicts the players will embrace the tournament based on feedback given to him.

“So much time has gone into it that it makes it easier for the players to accept,” he said.

But regarding the desires of the rest of the basketball universe, he acknowledged, “Everyone might not be on board right away.”

The critical point of the tournament will begin once the field is whittled down to the Knockout Rounds. Will those remaining teams apply an extra dose of urgency, as they normally would for the postseason?

Byron Spruell, the league’s president of operations, called them “games of additional consequences.” That is accurate, but of what consequence will the fans view them? That’s the million – ahem – billion-dollar question that won’t get an affirmation right away.

Also, as with any new creation, there will be flexibility moving forward. And that’s based on the reception and perception from the 2023-24 laboratory rat.

“It’s highly likely to change,” said Wasch. “We’re not going to be wedded to the first format.”

He cited viewership, attendance, social media response, direct fan feedback “and lastly, but more important is player and team feedback” as the factors that will influence any potential tweaking.

Dumars said: “It’s going to be interesting to hear their feedback because that’s how you can make it a better product.”

But make no mistake, the league is moving forward full-blast with an idea that was leaked the last few years to percolate among the masses.

As Dumars said: “This is an era of newness.”

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.