Run the NBA play-in tournament as a series of high-stakes gauntlet matches

Steph Curry and LeBron James play some basketball.
Steph Curry and LeBron James play some basketball.
Photo: Getty Images

The NBA wants to have an in-season tournament, and a lot of the reaction to this idea is that it’s terrible, that it’s basketball trying to be soccer, that it’s a huge waste of time.


As if the NBA’s regular season is good? Opening night is cool. Christmas is cool. The trade deadline is cool. The last couple of weeks when everyone’s jockeying for position are cool. A couple of times a year, you’ll get a really amazing West Coast game that you flip to late-night on TNT. The rest? Snooze-o-rama.

Why not try something different? Why not try to make more about the months from October to April, you know, actually interesting for basketball fans?

Just because the idea of an in-season tournament derives from soccer, is that really so bad? Soccer is extremely popular, for one thing, but more importantly, it shouldn’t matter where an idea is from, it should matter whether the idea is good. Making the NBA worth watching in February is good. It should happen.

So, here’s a thought on how to make it happen, and to make a better playoff system, too.

The WNBA already has something going called the Commissioner’s Cup, in which the first home-and-away games between teams count toward the standings, eventually culminating in an August title game, with a $500,000 prize pool. The NBA should take this and run with it.

The NBA eventually will get to 32 teams. When it does, the league should realign to four divisions of eight teams each. Let’s go with that as the basis for this, because the math is easier, and plays into the playoff reform, but it could also work with the current alignment by shifting some numbers around.


Schedule each team for a home-and-home with all of the out-of-division teams. That’s 48 games. Each team in your own division, you’d play twice at home and twice on the road — bringing the total to 76 for the regular season. All 76 games would count toward the standings, as usual, but only the 48 non-division games would be part of the “Silver Cup” standings.

Now, the way to build the schedule would be to have the “Cup” competition wrap up right after the All-Star break, hitting the sweet spot between the Super Bowl and March Madness. Teams would be seeded, 1-32, and for two weeks, play a single-elimination tournament. The winner gets not only the pride of winning the Cup, but also a tangible reward: automatic entry to the main playoff bracket.


Wait, you can’t just give out a playoff spot, can you? Well, under the new system, everyone would be in either the playoffs or the Play-In Tournament, which would be expanded.

The top three teams in each division would be seeded, and then, borrowing from a WWE gauntlet match, the Play-In Tournament would proceed with No. 8 facing No. 7, the winner of that facing No. 6 the next day, a day off, and then back-to-back games hosted by No. 5 and No. 4.


Have a team that’s looking like it might be out of the top three in the division? The Cup becomes hugely important. The Cup winner comes from your division? Now there are only two spots that avoid the play-in. And those divisional games down the stretch after the Cup wraps up are a much bigger deal, which also set the stage for rivalries to build, heading into divisionally-based playoffs.

Creating an in-season tournament sounds like a big departure for the NBA. It can just be a mild reshaping of the season that already exists, only pumping a lot more intrigue and excitement into a campaign that is an annual exercise in midwinter drudgery.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.