Welcome to the USA, where entertainment never stops. Even competitive sports are considered to be a part of it these days, stepping further and further away from sporting values. Is the NBA trying to turn back the clock with the In-Season Tournament or is it just another spectacle?
It all started with professional wrestling, which was first described as sports entertainment almost a hundred years ago, but only embraced it in the late 1980s. And honestly, it is an appropriate description: that kind of wrestling is theatrical, extravagant, and most importantly, predetermined (although some would argue otherwise). But they were successful and then every other sport wanted a piece.
Since the early 2000s, it has become increasingly lucrative for top football teams to spend the pre-season in Asia, Australia, or the US. What used to be friendlies are now disguised and glorified as tournaments, such as the Emirates Cup, the Audi Cup, the … you get the point. It is nothing more than a show. There might be group stages, there might be a final, the winner might lift a trophy – but by the next morning, absolutely no one will care.
In basketball, the Harlem Globetrotters have always been an exhibition team, although some seem to consider them competitive (they have supposedly won 75 championships and more than 27,000 games), and, well, they actually held some semi-real games way, way back. But the NBA has always been a professional league, often considered to be the best in the world. Have they fallen into the same trap?
Simply put, the NBA season is too long. Much like football is seemingly now played all day, every day, the NBA regular season is always on between October and April. The playoffs then last until late June (Game 7 of the Finals would be held on the 24th of June next year). With at least 82 games per team, some of them – if not most of them – do not matter much.
Teams sometimes rest their star players. They hardly play defense for most of the game. When the result does not matter, it looks more like a travelling circus. Kudos to the league, as they have been trying to make games relevant again; participation rules prevent teams from randomly giving their stars the day off, and they also introduced the play-in tournament, thus keeping more teams in contention for longer.
Has it worked? Yes and no. The play-in system has now been used for four seasons, and until 2023, all the teams that got through fell flat in the first round. That changed this spring when the Los Angeles Lakers progressed from seventh seed to the Western Conference finals, and the Miami Heat, the eighth seed in the East, made the Finals. But both would have made the playoffs with the old system too.
So the regular season still lacked something and this season, the In-Season Tournament (or the NBA Cup) was established. The idea has been floating around for at least 15 years according to Adam Silver, now-commissioner and then-janitor. Well, maybe not exactly janitor, but he has held at least six different jobs since joining the league office in 1992. He knows the league inside out.
The idea behind the NBA Cup is to make the league more competitive during November and December when the season overlaps with the NFL season. It should also add more weight to games as they count for both the tournament and the regular season with the exception of the final. So teams should have the incentive to be good.
As for the player’s motivation, it is a straightforward way to make (some more) money – every player on the winning team receives half a million dollars. Not much for Steph Curry, who earns a little north of 50 million in 2023/24, but a lot for many – Trayce Jackson-Davis, his team-mate on the Warriors, has contract for just 1,1 million this season.
Thankfully, the league did not reinvent the wheel either as the system is quite easy to grasp. Conferences are divided into three groups of five teams (so six groups in total), with seeding based on the results of last season. Each team plays four group games, two at home and two away. The six group winners, plus the best non-winning team of each conference, go through to the quarterfinals.
The semifinals and the championship game are held in Las Vegas – another subtle test for Sin City to see whether they would be suitable to have their own franchise one day (yes, and it will happen rather sooner than later). In total, a team needs to play seven games to win the NBA Cup. Of course, there are individual accolades as well, but no rings for the winner.
In the end, the success will be mostly up to the fans. To continue in football terms, the system makes it somewhat similar to the Champions League, but is it just the Audi Cup in disguise? The teams and the players can be held accountable too. Are they taking it seriously? We have seen enough to make some way too early conclusions.
Three of the first-seeded teams, so half of them, advanced to the knockout stage. Two were second and another two third seeds, while the Indiana Pacers joined the last eight as the only fourth seed. Both the big markets (New York, Boston, Los Angeles) and superstar teams (Milwaukee, Phoenix) were present.
The Pacers became the feel-good Cinderella story which American sports fans thrive on when dispatching both the Boston Celtics (first) and Milwaukee Bucks (first) to make the final. 23-year-old point guard Tyrese Haliburton had his career first triple-double against the Celtics and followed it with a 27-point, 15-assist showing vs the Bucks. He is a superstar in the making.
In the final, Haliburton and the Pacers will be up against the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James, who will turn 39 later this month, put up 31 against the Phoenix Suns and then 30 (…in 22 minutes) against the New Orleans Pelicans. Is he ready to pass the torch? How will a win – or a loss – influence LeBron’s legacy?
It is looking fairly good for the NBA at the moment. Whoever wins, the Cup will be talked about.