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Understanding how the new NBA In-Season Tournament works and why it’s a good idea

How does it work? What’s the incentive? Is a good idea?

2023 NBA Summer League All-Access Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA. It’s a league always attempting to be creative and innovative. In our post-COVID world, they continue to tweak the game of professional basketball in an effort to drum up excitement and engagement. The Play-In. The naming of every single trophy. And now, the In-Season Tournament.

The inaugural tournament has split the league into six groups, and the Phoenix Suns have drawn ‘West A.’ Sounds very soccer-y, doesn’t it? It should. That’s the goal.

The creation of a tournament that mirrors what soccer leagues across the globe do annually isn’t something we should be surprised by. The international appeal of the NBA continues to grow, and while within the boundaries of the United States it isn’t as popular as the NFL, Adam Silver is seizing an opportunity to create relevancy in the sports landscape in the fall.

Most causal fans’ first introduction to the new NBA season isn’t in October when the season begins. It’s the slate of Christmas Day games.

The In-Season Tournament is designed to create competitive excitement during the heart of the NFL season. It begins in early November and culminates on December 9 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Suns will play in West A, which includes the Lakers, Grizzlies, Blazers, and Jazz.

How does it all work?

Did you watch Richard Jefferson’s captivating explanation of the format? No? Have no fear, I’ll do my best to explain with words rather than giant hand gestures.

It’s complex when you start to factor in total number of games played in a season for the advancing teams and questions as to why the championship — like Play-In games — don’t count towards statistics. But of the surface, it’s simple:

  • 6 groups of five teams, 3 groups in each conference
  • You play each team once as a part of group play in November, which will be games on Tuesdays and Fridays
  • Group winners plus the top record not to win a group advance to the 8 team knockout tournament (can’t wait for all of the 2-2 record tiebreaker rules)
  • Tournament style from there until a champion is crowned on December 9

You get all of that. Again, somewhat simple and an attempt by the NBA to make people excited for their product. People love knockout tournaments and we’ll get that in early December.

We’ve talked about why the NBA would do it, and we’ve talked about how the NBA will do it. The question many are asking, however, is why would players get up for it? What’s in it for them?

Working in the wonderful world of food and beverage, it is my tactical objective to incentivize the servers and bartenders who work under my umbrella. The way to do this is to institute strategies that allow them to upsell items in an effort to push check point higher. Higher check point, higher revenues, higher gratuity. Doubles for two dollars more, suggestive selling on spirits, recommending cheese and bacon add ons to your burger; the team is trained to do these things. We all win, and you get a bit drunker and eat a few more calories.

The NBA is attempting to provide incentive for the In-Season Tournament, doing so monetarily. There will be compensation to the two teams that make the final. Each player on the winning team will receive $500k, and the second place team receives $200k each. But will that be enough? Or will teams chose to sit their stars as part of their scheduled load management routines (I’m looking at you, Kawhi Leonard)?

From the outside looking in, the masses believe that the money isn’t enough to garner motivation from the players to compete. Perhaps the people are right, and only time will tell if that is the case.

How about this? Imagine the Phoenix Suns win the entire thing. Each player walks out with the $500k in their pocket, right? For someone like rookie Toumani Camara, who is slated to make $1.1 million next season, that is a sizeable chunk of change. But to Devin Booker and his $36 million salary, 500k equates to 1.3% of his salary.

What if that sum was donated to local schools in the winning team’s community? Much akin to how the NBA uses the All-Star game and the winning score by quarter to support local charities, the same could be done from the winning team in this format. It’s a lovely method of encouraging the players and certainly will catch the attention of the casual fan.

But in the end, there is no true incentive for the players. There is no “WIIFM”, the hospitality acronym for “what’s in it for me”.

News flash: there doesn’t need to be an incentive for the players! And there doesn’t really need to be. The games (outside of the championship) count. Players will play because, even in the In-Season Tournament, the games matter.

Here is where it gets a little complex.

The group and knockout stages of the tournament count against your record. You want to mail it in? Go for it. Being 0-4 hurts your overall record for the season. Every team is going to start the season with 80 scheduled games, and 2 games “TBD”. Those TBD games will be specified after the tournament, because if you make the knockout round and win both, you’ve fulfilled the TBD games.

Make sense? No? Just watch and you’ll see. Zing! There’s your incentive as a fan. Watch to understand! Silver wins again.

The “incentive” argument shouldn’t be a deterrent to the idea of the tournament. These are professional basketball players. They live to compete.

Think back to when the NBA announced the Play-In games. Which side of the fence were you on? Which side are you on now? I wasn’t for it. To play hard all season, earn the seventh seed, and then have a chance to lose it because you’re not hot at the right time? Perhaps it’s because the Suns haven’t had to play in the win-or-go-home affair, but I’ve changed my mind on the Play-In.

And I’m preemptively getting on board with the In-Season Tournament.

I’m for the idea. I like that the NBA continues to try to be innovative and exciting, engaging and strategic. It’s an intriguing concept that gives the basketball environment leading up to Christmas a new, fresh vibe. I believe it will accomplish its goal of bringing some more eyes to the NBA, even if just for a game here or there. Again, people love tournaments, and even if this does not have the won-or-go-home appeal, neither do soccer tournaments worldwide.

Give it a try. See how it works. Don’t knock it until you try it. WIIFM? Basketball, baby.

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