Group play for the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament has come to an end. There was a lot of understandable consternation about the whole thing — it’s brand new and there was no guarantee it would work — but the whole thing was a blast. They added some much-needed excitement to what is usually the most boring part of the NBA’s calendar, and you can tell that the players legitimately care about getting the chance to win a whole lot of money and become the first team to lift the NBA Cup.
The best seems like it’ll be on the horizon, as the Knockout Rounds are shaping up to be a ton of fun. Single-elimination basketball is just awesome, and as long as we don’t get seven blowouts, people are going to enjoy tuning in and watching. Still, the league is almost certainly going to look back on group play and make some adjustments as it prepares to run the In-Season Tournament back in 2024. And we have a few ideas of what things they should keep, what tweaks they can make, and what they can get rid of altogether.
Three teams + a Wild Card
Thirty teams kind of limits how big the league can make the knockout round, so doing it like this is perfect. Winning a group should be a big deal! Even further, teams being incentivized to be one of the two best group winners — thereby giving them a home game in the quarters before things shift to Las Vegas and every game takes place on a neutral court — is a really nice touch. And while it’s not quite the same as an 8-seed going on a run, that Wild Card squad can go on a mini-Cinderella run, even if that team is going to usually be pretty good. The general structure of the whole thing is a hit from the very beginning, and there’s no point in messing with this ahead of next year.
Counting games for the regular season
The league really did a great job figuring out how to make these games matter for something other than the Tournament. It would be very easy for a team that was eliminated early to just pack in their final game or two because they have no hope of moving on, but linking these to regular season games incentivizes teams to take those seriously, too. For example, it would have been really easy for Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to take their final game against the Houston Rockets off, as Dallas was already eliminated. Instead, both of them played great, fans got a great game, and the Mavs picked up a win that both helps them in the regular season and knocked Houston out of the Tournament. There are stakes that go beyond the In-Season Tournament, which ends up making the In-Season Tournament even better.
Just call it the NBA Cup! I know the In-Season Tournament made a little more sense in the first year as a way to explain to people what it was, but it’s a bit clunky and it’d make for a much cleaner branding of the event to call it the NBA Cup (surely brought to you by a sponsor soon).
How groups are put together
Keeping track of which team is in which group is tough, if only because we already have a system that separates teams into three groups of five with divisions. I’m very open to the idea that, with this being the first season, keeping track of this will become easier and easier over the years. At the same time, I’m inclined to say we can just keep teams in their divisions for this, particularly because part of the appeal of an event like this is it adds high-stakes games to the sleepy period of the regular season, and there are already baked-in rivalries within divisions that would make for an interesting television product. Obviously some divisions are more competitive than others, but the longer this format goes on, you’re going to get some groups that are total stinkers as long as they’re based on records from the previous season.
Home-and-home scheduling for the group stage
I want to give credit to J.B. Bickerstaff for this one, as he mentioned expanding the group stage out to eight games and turning the group into a home-and-home.
#Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said that he and everyone else are learning about the In-Season Tournament as they go but he’s a huge fan of the process. He advocates for the league to do an eight game Group Stage format so there’s home and home opportunities.
— Evan Dammarell, Spotify Alchemist (@AmNotEvan) November 28, 2023
This is an excellent idea. One of the events the NBA assuredly had in mind when it was trying to put this all together — the Champions League in European club soccer — already does this, as it has every team play home and away in its group. Only having two home games for an event like this is nowhere near enough if the league wants to hammer home that this is a gigantic, must-see spectacle. Go home-and-home for group play, which includes the added bonus of potentially clearing up tiebreaker scenarios (we’ll discuss this in more detail next!), as more games would theoretically decrease the likelihood of teams ending with the same records.
Limiting the importance of point differential
It’s pretty clear that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with point differential mattering this much. You can tell that some players understand that it’s not bad sportsmanship to place an emphasis on margin of victory (here, for example, is Domantas Sabonis trying to encourage Kevin Huerter to get a shot up late in a game), but a number of players and coaches clearly don’t like this, and the Boston Celtics intentionally fouling Andre Drummond in a game where they led comfortably because of the emphasis on point differential didn’t exactly go over well. Maybe this one gets dog eared and we return to it after group play next year, but it’ll certainly be something to watch next year.
Expanding the group stage to eight games, with home-and-homes for each team in the group, would lead to fewer ties and also space the point differential out some. There’s not a way to handle tiebreakers without it and I do think players and coaches will grow more accustomed to it, but the four-game schedule puts a bit too much importance on differential and an expanded schedule would help alleviate that issue.
Condense the Tournament schedule
It’s not hard to see why the league would want to keep things on Tuesdays and Fridays, two of the nights that they never have to worry about the NFL. At the same time, it’s a little clunky mixing non-Tournament games with Tournament games like this — while it’s easy to point to the Champions League as a counter, it’s worth mentioning that during group play, you’re not able to play a team from your own country. There is no turning on a Juventus vs. AC Milan game in the group, so you’re never really concerned about losing track of what game is in what competition. Fortunately, the Knockout Rounds will give us a sense of how this could look during the week — the quarters are on a Monday and Tuesday, the semis are on a Thursday, and the final is on a Saturday, with those Monday and Thursday games going head-to-head with the NFL.
I’d prefer it if the league, in conjunction with expanding group play to eight games, just set aside three weeks or so and had every game that a team plays be a Tournament game. It’s just easier to keep track of and keeps all of the focus on this really incredible thing that the league has put together, rather than flipping back and forth between standard regular season games and In-Season Tournament games. If everyone knew that the last three weeks of November were when the Tournament was happening, you’d probably get players and fans to be a bit more engaged and understanding of what’s at stake each night.
A special NBA CrunchTime for Tournament nights
The league already has its own version of the beloved NFL RedZone in NBA CrunchTime, which is on the NBA App a set number of nights during the season. It’s such a good idea and Jared Greenberg does a good job as the host, but group play in the In-Season Tournament is an excellent opportunity for the league to expand it out. Put it on NBA TV on Tournament nights, let Greenberg run point, and give constant and clear updates on what the group table looks like, all while flipping from game to game and giving fans a chance to check out the best moments from all of them. I completely understand that taking eyeballs away from ESPN or TNT is, almost certainly, something the league would want to avoid, but the NFL has figured out how to have RedZone exist harmoniously with CBS and Fox. And if this works, perhaps it can turn CrunchTime into something that fans actively seek out en masse going forward — an NBA whiparound show is such a good idea for those nights with 10+ games, and if it’s put in front of fans, I’m confident it’d work out.
How many more players/coaches need to complain about the courts not being safe because players are slipping more often than usual? I don’t hate the idea of something being different about the courts to distinguish them from a regular night, but at the absolute most, something like the graphic of the NBA Cup that they put on center court is all they need a la the old Larry O’Brien trophy graphic that they used to put on floors for the NBA Finals — or, even better, baselines/sidelines with NBA Cup/IST branding rather than anything on the court itself.
Otherwise, just have “NBA IN-SEASON TOURNAMENT” on the score bugs that ESPN and TNT and the RSNs use (or, again, just use NBA Cup to make it easier to put up on a graphic). They’re on the screen all the time and literally tell you it’s a Tournament game! It does the job that the courts strive to do, only without the increased likelihood that a guy will slip and tweak something. You also wouldn’t need to indicate games are tournament games if you condense the schedule to make every game over a certain stretch part of the tournament.