Players smiled and laughed and danced. Rivals dapped and hugged. Confetti fell. Everything about Saturday night’s NBA trophy ceremony felt familiar, minus one key element: unbridled joy. A superstar shouting to the heavens, Anything is possiblllle!!! or (City name), this is for you!!! A legend jumping on the scorer’s table, or falling to the court in tears.
It turns out, a championship won in early December, based on a handful of games, does not quite look, sound, or feel like a title won in June. And, well, that’s OK! If there’s anything that skeptics (hi, it’s me) of the NBA’s brightly hued, occasionally wonky, oddly hyphenated new tournament must acknowledge, it’s this: People cared. Players wanted to win, whether for money or bragging rights or the trip to Las Vegas. Fans enjoyed the chase. And, really, isn’t that the point of the exercise?
As a business matter, it’s all a bit murkier. Was the in-season tournament a ratings bonanza? Not exactly. A money maker? Hard to say. Was it worth the investment, the hype, the endless stream of Michael Imperioli commercials? That’s for the bean counters to assess. Will Amazon or Apple or someone else shell out tens of millions to broadcast the tournament in the future? We’ll see.
But as a basic basketball and entertainment endeavor, I’d say the first-ever NBA Cup was a qualified success—one of the better experiments of the Adam Silver era. And there have been lots of them in his 10 years as commissioner. Remember the shirseys? (Ack.) The award show? (Double ack.) The Clorox Clutch Challenge? (No, I don’t remember it, either.) Under Silver, the league has adopted coaches’ challenges, flopping penalties, lottery reform, a play-in tournament, an earlier trade deadline, a longer All-Star break, and a shorter preseason. Next up could be a two-day draft. (Meh.)
Some innovations have fared better than others. But it’s a credit to Silver that his administration is so willing to tinker, whether with rules and game play or the broader structure of the season. Experiment enough, and you’re sure to produce a few flops. (David Stern had a few, too. See “synthetic ball” and “shortened 3-point line.”)
The biggest question I had about the in-season tournament was, effectively, Will anyone care about a made-up trophy won in December? LeBron James and Co. just answered with a pretty emphatic “Yes.” LeBron wanted that trophy, and whatever amorphous meaning it carries. The Indiana Pacers, who lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the title game, clearly wanted it. The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics sounded genuinely disappointed after losing in the knockout round. And most of those games were legitimately intense. (The one glaring exception being the Lakers’ 44-point rout of the Pelicans, who apparently were there just to prove that, well, not everyone cared equally.)
One other caveat about Saturday night: It involved LeBron and the Lakers, who count Vegas as an extension of their home market. That was a huge boon for the league. The arena was packed with Laker fans. Would the championship have felt quite as vibrant without that crowd? Without LeBron? We’ll find out in future years.
But back to basketball. For a rising star like Tyrese Haliburton, the tournament was invaluable, providing a playoff-like experience and a boost to his national profile. The young and frisky Pacers aren’t ready to contend yet, but this tournament run could serve as a springboard and confidence booster.
The tournament gave us some genuinely wonderful moments, like the Pacers’ joyful celebration with their fans after winning their quarterfinal game. It produced some controversy, including the Lakers’ questionable late-game timeout against the Suns. And it generated some hard feelings, with vets like DeMar DeRozan bristling over opponents running up the score to boost their point differential. All of which makes this inaugural run memorable.
Does a championship won on Dec. 9 do anything to burnish LeBron’s legacy? Um, no. Are Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant losing sleep over not winning the NBA Cup? Doubtful. Will we still be talking about the Cup next week? Or even, say, tomorrow? Also doubtful. As Lakers star Anthony Davis said Saturday night, “We know it’s not the real thing.”
It isn’t, it can’t be, and again, that’s OK. We want pro athletes to compete for competition’s sake, don’t we? That they went this hard for a trophy that everyone agrees is, well, sort of contrived, is actually, weirdly, a plus. In a way, the tournament was a triumph of group psychology: It mattered because everyone acted like it did, which in turn made it feel more meaningful.
And if the point of the exercise was to inject a little more excitement in an otherwise languid part of the season, well, mission accomplished.
So we can quibble over the details, the structure, and the court designs—and league officials will reassess it all—but it’s pretty clear this thing is here to stay. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give the in-season tournament a 3.5, one of the better innovations of the Silver era. As for the other major experiments …
2013: Shirsey, You Can’t Be Serious
Every NBA star, of every generation, from Bill Russell to Joel Embiid, has worn some version of the same uniform top: a front, a back, two shoulder strips of varying width. Until 2013, when the NBA—taking its alt-jersey obsession to a fanatical new extreme—attached short sleeves and then, for good measure, shrunk every jersey two sizes too small.
The result—the “shirsey”—looked like something out of a 1980s Underoos campaign.
I’m still trying to imagine how this pitch meeting went. “Hey guys, great league, but you know what would make it even more awesome? Pajamas!” It’s as if George Costanza infiltrated a marketing meeting at Olympic Tower, and everyone hastily signed off so they could get to lunch. It’s as if the NBA went all out to cultivate the preschoolers market.
The shirseys made their debut in early 2013, during the final year of the David Stern era, when the Warriors adopted them for three games. The league went full shirsey for all the Christmas games the next season. Soon, every franchise had a version in the closet. James was actually wearing a black Cavaliers shirsey when he delivered that historic title to Cleveland in 2016. (Then again, James also ripped off both sleeves in frustration during a poor shooting performance against New York in 2015.)
But the sleeved jerseys were mostly hideous and broadly derided, including by players themselves, and Silver—mercifully—phased them out in 2017.
Rating: 1 star
2017: And the Award for Worst Idea Goes To ...
The most moving (and memed) MVP speech in history came in 2014, when a teary-eyed Kevin Durant looked out at his mom, Wanda, and said, “You the real MVP.” The moment resonated because it was heartfelt, organic, and delivered in an intimate setting (the Thunder’s practice facility), before family, teammates, and local media. And it came in early May, during the thick of the playoffs, when we’re all fixated on the NBA.
But the league sacrificed it all, in a brazen attempt to commoditize emotion and put it on national TV. The NBA Awards show, broadcast by TNT, debuted June 26, 2017. It lasted three years, until the pandemic of 2020 (and common sense) knocked it off the calendar for good.
To be clear, the problem wasn’t really the broadcast itself; the TNT folks always put on a good show. The issue was context and timing. Announcing all of the awards in late June, after the Finals, blunted their impact. No one cared by then. And unveiling all of the awards on the same night meant less-sexy awards like Sixth Man of the Year were completely overshadowed by the MVP.
The beauty of rolling out awards gradually, throughout the playoffs, was that every winner got his own moment—a press conference in his home market, a pregame ceremony (if his team was still playing) in front of the home fans, followed by several days of feverish debate about the results. The award show negated all of that.
Rating: 1 star
2018: Hey Now, Pick an All-Star
If I were doing this exercise, say, a year ago, the All-Star draft—with the two top vote-getters picking teams, playground-style, on national TV—would have been an easy five-star rating. The draft was fun! And, well, the NBA just unceremoniously killed it, for reasons no one has adequately explained.
But let’s take a moment to remember why this was actually one of the NBA’s better experiments. It started with a stumble in 2018, with the league having captains LeBron James and Steph Curry draft their teams in private, then revealing their choices on TNT, without revealing the order. (Boo.)
In 2019, they took the draft live on TNT, with James and Giannis Antetokounmpo alternating picks—and it was a blast. James took a bunch of pending free agents—Kevin Durant! Kyrie Irving! Plus then-Pelican Anthony Davis!—leading to all sorts of fun tampering jokes/speculation. (The Lakers would acquire Davis five months later.) The 2021 draft gave us the unintentional comedy (slash insult) of James and Durant ignoring Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell until the final two picks. “Just like in video games growing up, we never played with Utah,” James explained. “Even as great as Karl Malone and John Stockton were, we never would have picked those guys. Never.”
This past February, we got Giannis using his first pick on Blazers star Damian Lillard—at the expense of his own teammate, Jrue Holiday—a wild foreshadowing of the Bucks’ offseason trade that sent out Holiday for Lillard. Oh, and Nikola Jokic—the reigning two-time MVP—was the last starter chosen. Four months later, he’d win his first championship.
The snubs were fun. The conspiracy theories were fun. The jokes and innuendo were fun. The on-the-fly, pseudo-serious roster “analysis” from the TNT crew was fun. Then the NBA scrapped the whole concept to go back to the traditional (yawn) East vs. West format. Silver’s explanation? “We thought it was time since we’re coming back to such a traditional market as Indianapolis … and all it means for basketball, that we were going to return to the classic format for our All-Star Game.”
So, basketball reasons, I guess.
Rating: 2.5 stars (Five stars for creating the draft. Zero stars for killing it.)
2019: Against All Odds
One of Silver’s earliest headaches as commissioner (after the Donald Sterling mess) was the sudden, widespread embrace of tanking for better lottery odds. The strategy had always existed, but it had become more brazen, highlighted by the Philadelphia 76ers’ multiyear campaign dubbed “the Process.”
Silver immediately set out to flatten the lottery odds, but his first proposal in 2014 failed on a vote by team owners. A less-drastic version was approved in 2017 and went into effect for the 2019 lottery—otherwise known as Zion-palooza. The results that May helped illustrate the goal: The three teams with the worst records (in order, the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Phoenix Suns) fell to third, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in the draft order. The New Orleans Pelicans, with just the seventh-best odds of winning, jumped into the no. 1 slot.
Did lottery reform eradicate tanking? No, of course not. Does a well-timed “rebuilding year” still occasionally pay off, odds be damned? Yes, just ask the Spurs. But I’d say there’s less tanking (and less extreme versions) now than we witnessed in the mid-2010s. Now if a team is perpetually terrible, it’s less by cynical design and more due to sheer ineptitude. (Of course, the play-in tournament has also played a role here, but we’ll get to that shortly.)
The true downside to lottery reform is that it’s made it more difficult than ever for small-market teams to acquire elite talent. But on balance, the change has been a plus.
Rating: 4 stars
2020: Give Them an E(lam) for Effort
They tried, folks. They really did try to make the All-Star Game interesting again. And for a moment, it kind of worked.
Silver and Chris Paul, then president of the players association, agreed that the showcase needed a makeover, some new ideas, and new energy. So in 2020, the league adopted the Elam Ending, in which the teams pursue a target score in the fourth quarter and the clock is turned off. They also tied charitable donations to each quarter score.
It was all an instant hit, with the 2020 All-Star Game going down as one of the best we’d seen in years. The stars played a little defense. They competed. Fans loved it. Everyone congratulated each other. And then, well, the novelty wore off. The games since 2020 have hardly looked any different than the ones before.
So Silver scrapped the Elam Ending in the same breath he scrapped the All-Star draft, all in the name of “tradition,” or whatever. Was four years of the new format (including one played amid a pandemic, in a near-empty arena) enough to judge the changes a failure? Apparently so. But it seemed hasty.
Rating: 2 stars
2021: Not Play-In Around
The NBA’s first play-in tournament was born of necessity—a way to restart the season, with as many teams as possible, amid a global pandemic. The play-in tournament we have now owes its existence to that 2020 innovation—but it’s helped address an entirely different set of issues: tanking, boredom, and the traditional dreariness of the regular season’s final weeks.
The play-in has incentivized struggling teams to keep competing in the final month, in hopes of securing the ninth or 10th seed. It’s incentivized teams in the seventh-through-10th range to keep pushing, in hopes of getting to sixth and avoiding the perils of a single-elimination tournament. It’s given more teams something to play for in March and April, and more fan bases a reason to stay engaged.
It’s perhaps unprovable, but I’d posit that the play-in has done more to discourage tanking than the flattened lottery odds. It’s also given us a bunch of supercharged win-or-go-home games in mid-April. Even some early critics (hello, LeBron) now praise the concept. And its success further emboldened league officials to launch the in-season tournament.
Of all the innovations of the past decade, it’s easily the biggest success—and the one least likely to be suddenly killed for “basketball reasons.”
Rating: 5 stars