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The NBA In-Season Tournament’s Real Test Begins Now

By all measures, the NBA’s midseason experiment has been a hit so far, but a slew of questions about its long-term relevancy remain. Can it gain enough traction to become a thing? Or will the novelty wear off?

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Somewhere, nestled deep in the NBA’s sprawling computer network, there’s a shared drive labeled “Strategic Development,” and within that drive is an array of folders left behind by former employees, and in one of those folders lies a piece of digital detritus that could have changed the NBA forever.

It’s a PowerPoint file—a “deck,” in corporate parlance—containing just 116 kb of data and titled, simply, “Midseason Classic.” It lays out plans for a 30-team, single-elimination tournament, to be played in January and February and culminating with a championship game over All-Star Weekend.

It was, in its time, a revolutionary concept.

The deck was born around 2009, in the twilight of the David Stern era, during a time of relative stasis—before LeBron took his talents to South Beach, before Steph sparked a 3-point revolution, before the rise of analytics and superteams and load management. The deck’s author? Unclear. League officials today think it was an outside consultant.

What we do know is the pitch never gained traction and was quickly relegated to the digital dustbin, stashed in a dusty subfolder, boxed up and memory-holed like the Ark of the Covenant in that government warehouse. Except in this case, the mystery box—or at least, the concepts contained therein—was not in fact lost forever.

The “NBA In-Season Tournament”—in all its generically named, awkwardly hyphenated, multihued glory—is a real thing now, a surprisingly compelling thing: a little weird, a little wondrous and, so far, wildly successful. It is not, to be clear, the direct descendant of that 116-kb deck from all those years ago, but rather its spiritual cousin, the final actualization of a concept that’s been batted around the league’s midtown Manhattan offices for decades.

In 2014, Adam Silver succeeded Stern as commissioner and promptly began promoting the idea of a midseason tournament, like the ones he so enjoyed in the European soccer leagues. Around the same time, Evan Wasch, a rising league executive with a head for innovation and experimentation, shifted from the NBA’s business side to its basketball strategy division, where he began tinkering, exploring, and reassessing just about everything—including ways to freshen up that staid, old 82-game regular season.

Their vision is now taking center stage.

On Monday night, the NBA opens the knockout round of its inaugural in-season tournament, with eight teams vying for the first-ever NBA Cup, to be claimed Saturday night in Las Vegas. Group play, which included all 30 teams, wrapped up last week. All the indicators say it’s been a hit. Ratings are up. Attendance is up. Fan engagement is up. Even the intensity of tournament games feels a notch higher, though that’s admittedly harder to quantify.

Sure, those blazing-red courts in Chicago and Miami may have fried a few retinas. And yeah, some feelings may have been hurt by teams running up the score, in pursuit of the all-important point-differential tiebreakers. But if it all sparked more NBA buzz in November and early December, well, league officials will happily take it.

“I am incredibly excited about what we have seen thus far,” says Wasch, now the league’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics. “There’s clearly been a heightened competitive intensity to these games—both in terms of game outcomes and point differential and player participation, in the way they’ve talked about it. And everything has flowed down from that.”

In truth, the real test begins now, with two nights of quarterfinal games (played on the higher seed’s home court), followed by the semifinals and championship in Vegas. What will they look like? Sound like? Feel like? Can a mini-tournament in December match the thrill of a playoff game in April? Does it need to?

Or, you might say this whole experiment comes down to one basic question: How much will fans care about a trophy created five minutes ago, and awarded two weeks before Christmas? What, exactly, will it mean when Devin Booker or Jalen Brunson or someone else raises the NBA Cup overhead?

“That’s the issue, right?” says Dan Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State who has been studying fandom for 40 years. “The traditions of fandom, they grow organically. And it’s so hard to manufacture tradition. I’m not saying it’s impossible.”

Fan traditions and fan values generally take time to take root. No one set out to make “Sweet Caroline” a nightly sing-along at Fenway Park, Wann notes; it just sort of happened. Or think about tailgating. “No one set out to tailgate,” he says. “No one goes, ‘Here’s an idea: Let’s go have a picnic in a parking lot.’” But now we don’t think twice about it.

So when he considers the merits and oddities of a shiny new trophy, based on 11 nights of games, scattered across five weeks in late autumn, Wann says, “Only time will tell.”

“You’re not going to say, ‘Hey, here’s a new trophy; everybody should think this is the best thing ever,’ and expect that to happen overnight,” Wann says. “But with time, it can be a big deal.”

In effect, that’s the bet that Silver, Wasch, and Co. are making here, that Basketball + Branding + Time will eventually equal Tradition, perhaps even Gravitas—even if there’s no precedent for such a thing among the major North American pro sports leagues. A season within a season? A second championship? For what? Sure, these things are well embedded in sports around the globe, but the NBA isn’t the Premier League, and the U.S. isn’t the U.K.

The hope is that if the players care, then fans will, too. (And that would, in turn, pave the way for broadcast partners and corporate sponsors to make this a lucrative new event.) The teams have been well incentivized, with a payout of $500,000 to every player on the NBA Cup champion, and $200,000 to every player on the runner-up. Players have been remarkably candid about wanting the bonus—but few have said anything about wanting the trophy for its prestige or bragging rights.

“Being completely honest, nobody cares about that,” Grizzlies veteran Marcus Smart told local media during training camp. “It’s the big one that we care about.”

The big one, of course, being the Larry O’Brien Trophy—the one imbued with decades of tradition and, just as critically, the one that carries the weight of an entire NBA season, of an 82-game slog that produces a field of 16 contenders, who battle through four rounds of best-of-seven series. Everyone knows what it means to raise the gold ball in June. No one is sure what it means to raise a cup on Dec. 9.

How much could it possibly mean to LeBron James, who has four NBA championships? Or to Kevin Durant, who has two? Then again, the cup might provide a little validation for younger stars and teams who have yet to make their mark. Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. Tyrese Haliburton and the Pacers. De’Aaron Fox and the Kings.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder: Will anyone hang an NBA Cup banner? Will anyone care?

They might, Wann says. Fans in the U.S. might not be accustomed to midseason tournaments in our pro sports, but we do celebrate all sorts of mini-championships that mean little or nothing: college bowl games, for instance.

“How does college football get a 6-6 team to play another 6-6 team at the Who Gives a Rat’s Ass Bowl, somewhere in the middle of Wyoming?! I mean, who cares about that?” Wann says, chuckling. “Well, I’ll tell you who cares about that: Those fan bases care about that.”

And the same, he figures, will be true of the NBA Cup. At minimum, the fans of the eight quarterfinalists will be a little more invested in this week’s games. Fans of the two finalists will be more invested Saturday night. Everyone else, of course, can simply dismiss their team’s “failure” in the tournament as being irrelevant anyway.

“Whoever’s winning is gonna care,” Wann says, laughing. “Fans are so good at figuring out ways to cope with their team’s failures. And so the teams that aren’t making it to the semis and whatever, they can easily cope with that by saying, ‘Well, who cares? It’s just a stupid thing that they invented.’ But it’s not stupid from the perspective of people that are still winning, right?”

Indeed, that notion was at the very heart of Silver’s pitch for this tournament. As he said in July 2014, “There’s very few things that you can win in the NBA,” as opposed to European leagues, where multiple championships are common. As the old axiom goes, one NBA team gets to call itself the winner each spring, while the other 29 go home losers.

The in-season tournament won’t change that. But it does give teams something else to chase, and fans something else to root for, during a period of the calendar when the stakes generally feel lowest. From his earliest days as commissioner, Silver badly wanted to solve that.

“It was totally Adam’s thing,” says a key stakeholder who was involved in the tournament discussions over the past decade. “No one was clamoring for it.” From the start, there were concerns over economics and scheduling and logistics that had to be resolved. But over time, team owners (who had rejected earlier proposals) and the players (who needed to be convinced) warmed to the concept.

And—league officials are quick to note—NBA fans themselves have been eager to see something like this for years. That support has come through in focus groups and surveys and even in emails to the league office.

In annual surveys, the league has often asked some version of the question: Are you interested in a midseason tournament? And would you watch? According to Wasch, support has always exceeded 50 percent and increased over time. By 2022, when the current tournament proposal was gaining steam, that support had risen to 73 percent. “That’s really, really strong support, from our perspective,” Wasch said.

By just about every measure, the tournament has been a success. Ratings for group play games on ESPN and TNT averaged 1.5 million viewers, according to the league—a 26 percent increase over the comparable dates in 2022. Group play games on local TV were up 20 percent over the same period. Attendance also seemed to get a boost, with the NBA reporting an average of 18,206 per game last month (including tournament and non-tournament games), its highest November figure ever. The league also reported a November record-high of 3.9 billion video views across the NBA’s app and social media channels.

So if the (admittedly slightly snarky) question is, Will anyone care?, the answer to date is a resounding yes.

“Listen, it’s an experiment,” says Ed Desser, a former senior NBA exec who now works as an independent media consultant. “There’ll be extra interest, just because of curiosity. And so it almost can’t help but be successful. The question will remain whether, long term, it’s enough of a delta to be worth all of the twists and turns necessary to make it happen.”

There’s a lot at stake here, beyond image and pride. The NBA has invested many millions to launch this endeavor, enlisting Michael Imperioli and LL Cool J and lots of bright paint to make it pop. If the world loves it, the NBA Cup becomes a new tentpole event to sell to network and commercial partners. And if it somehow flops? Well, league officials could just pretend it never happened, like the synthetic basketballs in 2006 or the short-sleeved jerseys of the 2010s.

If nothing else, the tournament (aided by those gaudy courts) has sparked a deluge of stories and podcasts and chatter, at a time of year when the NBA is sometimes an afterthought. “It’s providing an additional reason to watch,” Desser says. “Other than the purists who don’t like to ever see anything change, I don’t see any particular downside.”

This week’s knockout round presents the greatest test, and a new set of nagging questions: What if the semifinals are routs? What if the championship game is a dud? What if the ratings sag? Would it tarnish the whole initiative? How much does it hurt that the NBA’s reigning champion (Denver), MVP (Joel Embiid), and dynasty (Golden State) all failed to make the quarterfinals? Will the masses really tune in for, say, a Pacers-Pelicans finale?

How much will we care when the confetti falls Saturday night in Vegas? Will we ultimately judge the whole thing by the final game? Will the winners celebrate with champagne … or cheap beer? Will we even still be discussing it next week? Or will we already be immersed once more in trade rumors, All-Star voting, and MVP debates, the usual rhythms of midseason? Is the novelty enough to keep fans engaged next year, and the year after that, and the year after that?

“It’s got some things going against it,” Wann says, “because it’s contrived, it’s artificial, it’s not organic.” But he thinks the tournament is likely to succeed and endure, because, well, when it comes to sports, contrivances are sort of baked into the whole enterprise. “If you’re going to try and use logic to explain sports fandom, you’re in trouble,” Wann says. “Because inherently, it’s not logical.”

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