After years of flirting with the idea, Adam Silver finally did it. He finally implemented the in-season tournament he’d teased for years. Frankly, the NBA’s in-season tournament setup could have been worse. Richard Jefferson cheesing his way through an over-the-top infomercial like a Buick salesman was a bit nauseating, but the underlying message was a positive one for the league. For all of its bad press, there’s nothing but upside for the NBA’s integration of an in-season tournament. The alternative is a staid first half of the season in which the league gets buried beneath the NFL headlines. You can’t take the NBA schedule at stock value until after New Year’s at the earliest. Anything before that is a warm-up act.
After three weeks of getting into an early season groove, the group play portion of the inaugural tournament will consist of four games featuring the five teams within each pod on Nov. 3, 10, 14, 17, 21, 24, and 28. the winners of the six groups and two wild cards, one from each conference. The teams that don’t qualify will be thrust into the eight-game single-elimination portion. NBA stars might lack the incentive to put in 100 percent for the All-Star Game on what should be their vacation time, but contrary to popular opinion, resting stars for group play games or knockout round matchups doesn’t actually give players any rest. The 22 teams that don’t reach the knockout round will still have to play regular season games between knockout round games.
Ultimately, nothing can water down the relevance of the postseason. Over time, winning the NBA Cup and the Finals double will develop as much importance as clinching the Treble in soccer. For me, this comes down to one thing. The postseason and the Cup become the NBA equivalent of night owls vs. early risers. In December, teams should theoretically be healthier and old vets will have their legs. Meanwhile, newly constructed teams will still be discovering their chemistry. Silver has never been afraid to embrace the weirdness of professional basketball and the midseason tournament is the type of innovation the first half of the NBA schedule needed.
The NBA’s early season tournament was predictably skewered on Twitter as the equivalent of Jordan’s Space Jam title or LeBron’s Mickey Mouse Bubble ring, but the NBA discourse is a cesspool there anyway. Silver’s shiny new tournament is Threads. New content for a bored consumer and the perfect smelling salt for the long NBA season. For NBA aficionados who annually rail about the season being too long and inconsequential, this is for you. For all the criticisms that nobody is clamoring for this, nobody has weighed it against the alternative. The same sludge that’s been fed to us every December when teams are still feeling their way around or priming themselves up for the second half? Between the fourteen group play games and the seven knockout round games including the championship, the NBA Cup tournament is only a 21-game game detour from the other 1,2011 games left on the schedule.
Unfortunately, Silver forgot to rectify the one major gripe everyone has with the NBA postseason by keeping the East and West divided. That may have to do with the difficulties of scheduling the second half of the season and preventing an Eastern Conference team from facing an opponent in the West three times in an 82-game stretch. The NBA has strict scheduling guidelines that prevent teams from opposite conferences from facing one another more than twice in the regular season. The only exception will be the two championship opponents who play an 83rd game including the championship game in Vegas.
A single-elimination Royal Rumble in early December has a March Madness feel to it. Buzzer-beaters carry more weight in Game 1 of a one-game series than it does in the first five or six games of a seven-game matchup. More importantly, the league was smart enough to incorporate it in a way that doesn’t add any additional strain on players’ bodies.
The fusion of a hybrid-tournament schedule bleeding into the 82-game means star players will still have to play their allotment of 65 games in order to be eligible for NBA honors and by extension, for supermax contracts. It’ll be fascinating to watch if the best teams in a seven-game series match up with the NBA’s best in a scramble. Unlike the strategy and marathon postseason, the NBA Cup is a 100-meter sprint.
For title-or-bust teams, the Cup is a tune-up. To the James Hardens and Chris Pauls, it may be their only shot at any ring. Beggars can’t be choosers. Essentially, the league is crowning a first-half champion. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George might even be healthy this early in the season. Decades ago, the 3-point line was initially derided as a gimmick poached from the defunct ABA. In time, the Cup will be tinkered with and improved, but just like the advent of the three-point arc, it’s here for the long haul and the NBA is better for it.