The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night to take home the inaugural NBA Cup. I spent the week in Las Vegas taking in the action and talking to a ton of people around the league about the NBA’s in-season tournament experiment. Here are the biggest winners and losers from the event, both on and off the floor:
Winner: Adam Silver Going for It
It’s been almost 10 years since Adam Silver first publicly mentioned the idea of an in-season tournament taking place in Las Vegas. And now it’s become a reality. Competition was elevated. Games were more intense. Players hustled more. It felt a lot like the playoffs in December … just at a neutral arena featuring a colorful custom court.
Overall, the NBA succeeded by delivering a superior product during a normally slow time of the season, while displaying the potential for the tournament to grow into something far greater in the future. But there are different ways to define success and failure. Here’s a snippet from an Ethan Strauss article on his Substack, House of Strauss:
As best I can tell, the average viewership for a cable game on December 20th, 2022 was roughly 1.5 million. The average viewership for an In Season Tournament game on cable is, by Sportico’s calculations … 1.5 million. I’m sure Saturday’s LeBron-coronation drew more eyeballs, but that’s one game out of 67. Was it worth all this? Will we still be watching the IST in five years? How dependent are the numbers on the Lakers doing well?
This is a flop, folks. I know that sounds shocking after all the hype and hoopla within the NBA ecosystem. This assessment isn’t an indictment of the actual game play, which was pretty spirited. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to get Tyrese Haliburton some national recognition. He deserves it. It’s just to say that the NBA sunk a lot of resources into something and the public largely didn’t care.
Strauss is correct that the tournament wasn’t the viral sensation that the NBA could have hoped for after making such a significant investment in promoting it. The NBA’s core audience was activated, but casual fans weren’t lured in like they are during the postseason. Of course, the league would have preferred if they were and for ratings to have boomed. The league wants to use the tournament as a package to sell during its upcoming broadcast rights negotiations. And if interest had dramatically spiked, the league would have had more leverage in selling it.
Several people I spoke to in Vegas said these numbers will, most importantly, serve as a baseline with the goal being year-to-year growth. The league subjectively has something it can feel good about. There is a proof of concept. And now the league will feel empowered to make the tweaks necessary to make the in-season tournament an objective hit no matter the metric.
Winner: The NBA’s Willingness to Change
The NBA isn’t done innovating. Just about everything is on the table in terms of potential changes to the in-season tournament as soon as next year. Some of the tweaks that will be discussed:
- Point differential. Its use as a tiebreaker will get the majority of the criticism from coaches and players after teams were incentivized to run up the score in group play. Using quarters won as a tiebreaker instead of point differential is one alternative suggestion I’ve heard from a handful of people who work for the league, and from our very own Bill Simmons.
- How groups are determined. This year, six groups of five teams were lumped together using last season’s standings. Some around the league would prefer just to use the standard divisions since it’d be less confusing and give divisions more meaning again. But removing conferences entirely from the equation will also be discussed, and so will the number of teams within each group. Bill suggested five groups of six teams, with five group winners with three wild cards.
- Expanding the knockout round. This is one of my biggest personal wishes. Though it seems unlikely to go from eight teams to 16 next season, it’s a consideration for the future. I’d be in favor of moving to 16 teams as soon as possible so that there’s more of a ramp-up and thus more of a payoff once the title game hits. I felt this year happened too quickly, with the knockout round taking place over just six days. There’s a major buildup week to week during the NCAA Tournament that the NBA in-season tournament was missing. Adding a Sweet 16 could allow the NBA to make it a multi-week event, and someday the league could move to include every team.
Almost every change the NBA has made in recent years has been met with public resistance. But the NBA shouldn’t hesitate to make more improvements to an event with so much potential. Maybe soon, it’ll appeal to an even larger audience.
Winner: The Lakers’ Finals Odds
In Las Vegas, we saw LeBron James turn back the clock (again), Anthony Davis scowl like a man possessed, and Cam Reddish hound everyone. The Lakers showed what they can be when they are on top of their game and when their role players are fulfilling their duties. In addition to Reddish, Jarred Vanderbilt is finally healthy, while Taurean Prince is quietly becoming comfortable in his 3-and-D role. Austin Reaves is past his slump, and Max Christie is coming along nicely. With LeBron and AD leading the way, the Lakers look complete.
A lot of people scoffed when I ranked the Lakers fourth in my most recent championship power rankings in late November, just like they did when I put them sixth last season following their trade deadline acquisitions. But the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference finals last spring, and they look geared to make another run this postseason.
Much like last year, the Lakers are equipped with assets to make a trade before the deadline, with a tradable first-rounder in 2029; swaps in 2026, 2028, and 2030; and six future seconds. D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, and Gabe Vincent all have tradable salaries, too, though there’s plenty of reason to hang on to them with their respective skill sets. That speaks to the overarching point that the Lakers are already very good but retain ways to get even better around a still-elite talent in LeBron. Sleep on them at your own peril.
Loser: Zion Williamson’s Reputation
The Pelicans have one of the best young cores in the NBA, with a ton of versatile defenders, shooters, and upside talents. But they lack a star to lead them because Zion Williamson has fallen short of expectations this season. Zion is averaging career lows of 22.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. In Las Vegas last week, the Pelicans went one-and-done, losing to the Lakers in an embarrassing 44-point blowout in which Zion tallied just 13 points. For all the talk about him taking his conditioning seriously this offseason, he looks like he’s in the worst shape of his entire career. He’s incapable of sprinting. He huffs and puffs on the court, despite failing to crash the boards or make second efforts on the floor. On pure talent alone, he can still have big nights. But in no way has the 23-year-old proved he’s close to tapping into his potential or leading a winning team.
“He’s gonna be somewhat successful. But he could be special. But I don’t know if he has a [teammate like] Moses Malone, who told me I was fat and lazy,” Charles Barkley said on Inside the NBA last week. “If he could get in shape, you would not want to play this team.”
Barkley, who struggled with his own conditioning early in his career before finding the right balance and becoming a Hall of Famer, hit the nail on the head. Williamson simply has not taken his career as seriously as he can. Staying in shape should be the minimum required for a professional athlete. It’s not just about personal discipline. It’s a matter of professional integrity. Williamson’s disregard for maintaining peak physical condition is a slap in the face to his teammates, coaches, and the entire support staff who invest their efforts in the team’s success. It’s a letdown to fans, but most critically, it’s a tragic waste of his incredible talent.
Winner: The Rise of Tyrese Haliburton
No star hit it bigger than Tyrese Haliburton in Las Vegas. During the knockout rounds, Haliburton averaged 24.3 points and totaled 39 assists and only three turnovers. It didn’t matter what type of defense was thrown at him. Haliburton outsmarted switches by the Celtics, torched drop coverages by the Bucks, and created quality looks for his teammates against blitzes by the Lakers.
Haliburton leading the Pacers serves as a good example of what the in-season tournament can be for young, up-and-coming players and teams getting a chance to shine on a national stage in a playoff-like atmosphere. Thursday’s semifinal game against the Bucks was Haliburton’s first ever game on TNT! The NBA couldn’t be happier to see him break out, especially leading up to 2024 All-Star Weekend taking place in Indianapolis, and neither can the Pacers, who have a star to build around who makes everyone better.
Winner: Aaron Nesmith’s Two-Way Play
As the limelight shined on Haliburton, I hope viewers also took notice of Aaron Nesmith, a fourth-year Pacers wing who hit clutch shots, made smart plays, and was the primary defender against Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James. Nesmith competed his butt off against all of them and even made impressive plays against smaller, quicker players, like when he blocked a Damian Lillard driving layup in the semifinals:
Aaron Nesmith BLOCKS Damian Lillard and stares him down pic.twitter.com/qYNiGJ6QTP— Ahn Fire Digital (@AhnFireDigital) December 8, 2023
Nesmith was completely fearless during the in-season tournament and one of the main reasons the Pacers made it to the final and were competitive until the very end.
Loser: Indiana’s Lack of Size
That said, Nesmith is only 6-foot-6, and the fact he was Indiana’s best option against three of the league’s best players is also representative of a size problem that’s plaguing this team. Against the Lakers, the undersized Pacers were exploited, whether it was by Jaxson Hayes on the glass, Cam Reddish swallowing the man he was defending, or Anthony Davis dominating the interior. The Lakers were the larger team across all positions, and it seemed the Pacers never really had any answers.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last week that the Pacers are pursuing an athletic two-way wing to bolster the roster around Haliburton, citing Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby from the Toronto Raptors as potential targets. Indiana followed the same logic by drafting Jarace Walker in the lottery earlier this year, but the rookie isn’t ready to make a dent yet. Adding a veteran would help the Pacers’ ailing defense, providing support on the wing alongside Nesmith. But the team’s point-of-attack defense also must improve, which means Indy needs more from Haliburton on that end, too.
The Pacers will likely never have an elite defense with their current personnel. But they’re just a few moves away from becoming average. And with their historic offense, that might be all they need to make a playoff run.
Loser: Traveling on Short Notice
The best moment of the tournament came in the quarterfinals, when the Pacers went on a 9-0 run in the final two minutes to defeat the Celtics. It happened on Indiana’s home court, and the crowd went absolutely nuts:
The Pacers went on an ELECTRIC 16-6 run late to secure the W and advance to the In-Season Tournament Semifinals in Vegas— NBA (@NBA) December 5, 2023
I wish this type of atmosphere could carry over to Las Vegas. But it’s just not possible. Unlike college basketball, there are no bands playing songs or cheerleaders keeping the crowd alive between action. And for fans of the advancing teams, there’s so little time to buy tickets and plan travel.
Having the stands packed with fans of the teams playing is essential to having a good atmosphere. But to my understanding there were only a few hundred Pacers and Bucks fans at Thursday’s semifinal, which was played at 2 p.m. local time on a Thursday. If the Lakers hadn’t made it to the final four, Las Vegas would have been real quiet. If you sat close to the court last week, you could hear the players and coaches all talking to one another. The turnaround between the quarterfinal games on Monday and Tuesday, and then the semis on Thursday, was far too quick to make the trek from the Midwest to Las Vegas in early December.
If the NBA can’t give fans more notice to make the games in Vegas, maybe it would be better off having all in-season tournament games played in home markets until the final, which could still be held in Vegas. That way we could get more wild moments like what the Pacers treated us to.
Loser: New York’s Schedule
One of the quirks with making the knockout round of the tournament was that if you lost, you could end up with a much harder schedule than you would have had otherwise. For example, because they lost in the quarterfinals against the Bucks, the Knicks will now be forced to play Milwaukee and Boston five times each this season, one more than normally scheduled. The Knicks are already a combined 0-5 against those two teams this season, and now they’ll have to see them even more. Rough!
Loser: The Celtics Without Kristaps Porzingis
On the one hand, Boston’s loss to Indiana in the quarterfinals was just a single game. The Pacers caught fire from 3, while the Celtics went ice cold. On the other hand, Boston experienced the same exact issues it has suffered from for many years with a dismal third quarter, a lack of composure from its stars, and an inability to generate quality shots when the 3s weren’t falling. Instead of making a point to attack the rim against an undersized Indiana team, Boston kept settling. This is in part a function of Joe Mazzulla’s system, but also of the inability of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to run the offense. Despite playing together since 2017, Tatum and Brown still don’t look like a tandem with the chemistry you’d expect given their extensive experience playing together.
Most notable, though, was the absence of Kristaps Porzingis. On offense, Porzingis is Boston’s best option to attack mismatches. The Lakers showed how the Pacers can be pummeled inside, and Porzingis could’ve helped with drives from the perimeter, post-ups, and rebounds. On defense, Porzingis could’ve helped clean up the penetration being allowed.
I said before the season that Porzingis would be Boston’s biggest X factor who makes or breaks this team’s chances of winning the Finals, and the team’s loss to Indiana in the quarterfinals felt like evidence why. Relying on an oft-injured big man to be the key to winning a championship is risky. The Celtics need to find answers elsewhere on the roster for the next big game he misses.
Loser: The Bucks
After the Bucks lost to the Pacers in the semifinals, Bobby Portis “passionately challenged head coach Adrian Griffin and teammates to be better,” sources told Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes. More from Haynes:
Griffin entered the locker room and began harping on the importance of winning the rebounding battle, sources say.
The Pacers outrebounded the Bucks 51-46.
Portis, who scored four points on just five shots against Indiana in a near-season-low 18 minutes, quickly interjected and stressed how essential it is for Griffin to structure the offense down the stretch of games, sources said.
As one of the leaders of the team, Portis continued on voicing his concerns. Griffin welcomed the criticism and acknowledged he could do a better job being more aggressive with his play-calling, sources say. The nine-year veteran explained that it’s a two-way street: direction is needed and then it’s up to the players to execute, sources say.
Already this season, Griffin has seen his lead assistant Terry Stotts resign, and after he installed a more aggressive defensive scheme in the preseason, Bucks players asked him to revert to Mike Budenholzer’s drop coverage scheme from last season. This Portis situation is only the latest publicly known issue players have had with Griffin. Milwaukee’s offense hasn’t been a glaring issue, as the team ranks third in offensive rating, but the lack of structure certainly is an overall issue.
I found it surprising that the Bucks didn’t force-feed Giannis more touches against the Pacers. Giannis had a distinct size advantage over his defender and seemingly got to the rim whenever he wanted. Calling more plays and dictating priorities should be an emphasis for Griffin to continue growing in his role as a rookie head coach.
You’d think at some point Giannis and Lillard would run more actions together as well. They still don’t run a high number of pick-and-rolls per game, and they rarely ever use dribble handoffs. In general, Lillard isn’t utilized nearly as much off the ball as he was with the Blazers, despite sharing the court with the best player of his entire career.
Milwaukee’s main issue is defense, though. Lillard is a major downgrade from Jrue Holiday as a point-of-attack defender, and Griffin starts him next to Malik Beasley, who’s even worse. Having Cam Payne as your third guard doesn’t help anything, either. Griffin doesn’t have a lot of strong options, which makes it all the more perplexing that rookie Andre Jackson hasn’t been utilized yet. Jackson was a stellar defender last season at UConn, and though he’s inexperienced, he has the versatility to defend a variety of attackers. Utilizing him against the Pacers could have allowed the Bucks to attempt to pressure Haliburton in the first half, rather than sticking exclusively with drop coverage as he shredded them over and over again.
It wasn’t until the second half that the Bucks shifted to a 2-3 zone, which helped get them back in the game until the Pacers cracked the code midway through the fourth quarter.
Budenholzer was canned because of his lack of adjustments. But so far Griffin hasn’t proved to be any better in that department. Coaching must improve, and so must the personnel’s performance. Right now, the Bucks look like a team struggling to find answers.
Loser: The Regular Season
As much as it’s a compliment to the in-season tournament to say the players care and whatnot, it’s equally an indictment of the rest of the regular-season games. A ton of games will be played from now until mid-April. Many of them will be entertaining. But there are just so many of them that they often feel like they have little meaning, which is unlike the NFL, where literally every game carries significant importance.
Here’s a quick look at how I’d loosely reimagine the season schedule:
- Shorten the schedule to 58 games. This way, every team plays twice, with a true balanced schedule for everyone in the league.
- Begin the season in December, end it in June or July. By starting around this time of year, the league calendar could effectively be split into two halves. Between early December and early February, every team could play each other once. These games could also determine seeding for the single-elimination tournament.
- Hold the in-season tournament in February. It’s good timing for the tournament to take place after the Super Bowl and before March Madness. That way the NFL schedule can be entirely avoided, and the NBA could take center stage over a 14-20-day stretch.
- Create more in-season tournament incentives that count toward the overall standings. There has been much discussion about a team-specific reward on top of the $500,000 cash prize. Some have mentioned a guaranteed spot in the playoffs, while others have suggested a guaranteed lottery pick. In my opinion, the reward should count exclusively toward the standings. All wins in the tournament could count toward the season standings, perhaps with a multiplier involved as teams advance (winning the tournament could count as three wins, for example). That way teams would be incentivized in a number of ways to win the tournament. Increasing your odds of getting home-court advantage would be a good motivator, as would allowing the top seeds to choose their first-round opponent.
Making changes along these lines would partition the schedule nicely, with the first half of the season leading into the tournament, the All-Star break, and the trade deadline, and with the second half leading into the play-in tournament and then the playoffs. It would give the entire season some cohesion, making it all count toward the ultimate goal of winning the Finals.