The inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament is complete. Ultimately ending with LeBron James and the Lakers winning the first NBA Cup. Despite the initial reaction to the Tournament being divisive the majority of people ended up enjoying the Tournament. I fall under the optimistic camp but acknowledge tweaks need to be made. Let’s analyze the pros and cons of the In-Season Tournament’s first season.
The Pros and Cons of The In-Season Tournament
Pro 1: More Competitive Games
The first and most obvious reason this tournament works so well is it increases the level of competition in regular-season games. Initially, people were concerned about the player’s effort level. However, it’s clear the players bought in and it showed in the product. The result was more competitive, close, and high-intensity games during the middle of the regular season where typically the opposite is true. Both the group play and knockout rounds benefited from this. The group play matchups ensured entertaining matchups and an incredible slate of games every Tuesday and Friday. Adding prize money, making point differential matter and entertaining group play matchups were central to the tournament’s success.
Pro 2: Single Elimination Games Are Amazing
The intensity and environment of single-elimination games are unmatched. The Play-In Tournament gave us a taste of what single-elimination games look like in an NBA setting. The In-Season Tournament builds off this idea creating an incredible environment for the knockout rounds as a result. Simply put seeing playoff-level games in December is amazing. Single elimination also adds an element of unpredictably making big upsets more common.
While the Lakers-Pacers final and the Lakers-Pelicans semifinal weren’t extremely close, other knockout rounds games were highly competitive and intense. Furthermore, that doesn’t project to the norm for the tournament. The Pacers’ magical run to the championship game is the perfect example of why single elimination works so well. As the tournament continues I predict more young teams like the Pacers making similar runs. This is certainly a positive for the league as more young players and teams will get recognized. Seeing the Pacers and rising superstar Tyrese Haliburton getting praised in the media was a privilege and exactly what the league needs.
Pro 3: Adds a New Element to The Regular Season
Similarly, this tournament adds a new element to the regular season. Creating new storylines and talking points as a result. For years the regular season has been a slog, especially for non-hardcore fans. The tournament allows the NBA to build a bigger audience and stay relevant during the NFL season. Early regular season talking points are typically around new or surprising teams before quickly transitioning to typical MVP conversations. With the In-Season Tournament, the NBA has simply more to talk about and discuss. Talking points shift from repetitive and often unnecessary MVP debates to interesting discussions about the tournament. Ultimately, it breaks up the season in a good way and creates more structure.
Con 1: Confusing Format
Even for diehard NBA fans the format of this tournament was confusing at times. The biggest problem was group play where the groups were randomized and hard to follow. Considering the divisions have the same number of teams I see no reason for the NBA to make groups based on division going forward. This would make the format easier to follow and strengthen inter-division rivalries. On the final day of the group play the clinching scenarios felt overly complex and the league should make them more clear in the future. Additionally, I also don’t understand why the NBA scheduled certain games the way they did. The Knockout round semi-finals were inexplicably scheduled for 5 pm EST and 9 pm EST. Making it harder for most people to watch and hurting the tournament’s flow. Making these scheduling and formatting changes would be a huge step for the tournament.
Con 2: Neutral Site Games
The Las Vegas neutral site games didn’t work for me. The arena looked weird and it felt like there was a lack of crowd energy at times. Part of this is the wonky start times we discussed earlier. But it also comes with a neutral site arena where the city has no NBA team. Don’t get me wrong I like the idea of neutral sites and it works in other leagues. But it would be nice to get some increased energy attached to it.
Giving the reigning champion a home-court advantage next year could fix this problem while allowing the league to keep the idea of a neutral site. This idea makes the most sense, especially considering the alternative of not using NBA arenas and rotating between a few large-scale areas not home to NBA teams. On the subject of NBA arenas tournament-themed jerseys and courts help promote the tournament but need to be toned down to be aesthetically pleasing.
Con 3: More Fan Incentive
While the player prize money added a great incentive for the players. I think the league could add another prize to incentivize the fans, media, and players alike. Draft compensation such as the worst lottery odds or guaranteeing a playoff spot feel like realistic and intriguing ideas if the NBA goes down this road. Another idea could be giving the reigning champion a home-court advantage in the knockout round as discussed earlier. Ultimately, this little touch would make the tournament even more interesting and high stakes.
The Last Word
The first year of the In-Season Tournament was extremely successful. There were more competitive and entertaining games along with more relevance for the league overall. The cons I discussed are largely small tweaks the league could implement to perfect the tournament. Ultimately the NBA’s In-Season Tournament is here to stay and it’s great for the league.
Grade after first season: A-