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Fixing the NBA In-Season Tournament before it starts

Letting players like A.J. Green take center stage

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Adam Silver is making fetch happen. Early in his tenure as NBA commissioner, Silver publicly acknowledged that he was a fan of the European soccer tournament style, and now that he is closing in on 10 years as head honcho of the NBA, that inspiration is the foundation of an in-season tournament for the world’s premiere basketball league with group play starting Nov. 3 and a championship game slated for Dec. 9.

Each conference is broken down into three groups that contain five teams each. The Milwaukee Bucks are in “East B” along with the Miami Heat; Washington Wizards; Charlotte Hornets; and the New York Knicks, Milwaukee’s first opponent in the inaugural tournament (editor’s note: if you don’t understand the rules/idea behind the In-Season Tournament—and I wouldn’t blame you at all for that—here’s a breakdown for you).

As with many fledgling endeavors, the granularities and payoffs of the tournament are a little convoluted. Per the current outline, there is an MVP award and the best performers will be named to an All-Tournament Team honors based on performance. According to a USA Today report, players rostered on the eight teams who make it into a knockout round will each receive at least $50,000 from the pool of prize money, with players on the championship team earning a $500,000 payday for claiming the tournament title.

The name of the trophy that goes along with that title? The NBA Cup.

Uninspired. De rigeur.

It is rightly reflective of the tournament’s soccer influence, to be fair, but after the recent renaming wave of other league honors to tie them to legendary influences, it’s strange that the newest, shiniest toy in the league’s arsenal would receive a name so… plain.

The same goes for the name—it’s actually officially called the NBA In-Season Tournament—although in keeping with the soccer inspiration, this could change after year one or two spent settling in, as it did when women’s professional soccer arrived back in Kansas City and spent one season with the name KC NWSL before rebranding as the KC Current. The difference, of course, is that KC NWSL had just four months of runway between being established and the start of their first season; the NBA has had nearly a decade to properly plan their idea.

This tournament’s setup is functional in the simplest sense, but is it truly rewarding for anyone involved beyond Silver getting his wish?

Bucks legend Jeff Teague noted that the tournament’s financial incentives will be meaningful in motivating players who spend most of their time toward the end of the bench but would not necessarily serve as substantial motivation for star players to participate in tournament-specific action, even those needing to meet the 65-games-played standard to be eligible for awards such as MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and All-NBA honors.

And maybe Teague is right. To that end, maybe a more interesting—if not altogether better—version of the tournament may not necessarily require the NBA’s top-end players at all.

What if tourney rosters were comprised of second-stringers and players from teams’ G League affiliates? This wouldn’t create the same immediate buzz as a tournament with star power and name recognition, but what buzz is there, exactly, about the tournament right now?

Letting motivated bench players move into starting roles while they are mixed and matched with a handful of high-performers from their squads’ affiliated developmental teams serves several purposes:

Motivated players, ideally, means more exciting play

Without risks of DNPs for load management or headline names from playoff shoo-ins resting their legs, competition should still be high. Let A.J. Green get hot for a night that will live on in the fan base’s lore. Let Sharife Cooper cook.

Adding an organizational incentive could spur franchise buy-in through the coaching staff and front office, as well. Brew Hoop’s own Kyle Carr suggested an additional lottery pick while our faithful editor Van Fayaz suggested the idea of a cap exception such as an additional MLE.

One shining moment

Stars on the sidelines and G League players getting significant minutes on a larger stage has the potential to create the kinds of unexpected moments of excitement or endearment that fans gravitate toward during the NCAA tournament or the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend. A clip of Giannis’ reaction to a relatively unknown player putting Ryan Arcidiacono on a poster would be a gift to us all.

More NBA player development

This would be another step in the right direction for taking player development seriously. The establishment of the G League Ignite and its impressive recruitment of young talent thus far has been a major move, so what’s next? Put the Ignite team in the tournament and let the national audience get a glimpse at the players whose names will be called toward the top of the next NBA draft. Putting Ignite into the tournament would add a wildcard to the mix as the team’s top recruits try to put their pre-draft stamp onto the league and the veterans selected to mentor them on the roster try to prove that they’re still deserving of a major club’s roster spot on a while keeping their gaze firmly planted on the tourney’s prize money.

For each NBA team to field a tournament team under this format would require every team to have a G League affiliate to begin with, though. With the addition of the Rip City Remix to the Portland Trail Blazers organization, the Phoenix Suns are now the only team without an affiliated club below them—and if any team would be primed to put an interesting mix of bench talent into a tournament, Bucks alum Grayson Allen and the ever-lanky Bol Bol would be a fun NBA Jam team to head the roster.

Fostering more interest in the developmental teams and the Ignite squad could also prove useful for a league on the brink of expansion. For example, the Remix’s Kevin Knox— previously a rotation big for the Knicks—could almost certainly be the 14th man on an NBA team right now. The league is reaching a point of talent saturation, and with the addition of two new franchises presumably looming at the expiration of the next media rights deal, familiarizing more casual fans with teams and players in the G League now could pay off down the line as expansion drafts and free agency signings would likely see players matriculating from the development ranks to Seattle, Las Vegas, or wherever the new NBA clubs might put down roots.

Speaking of Las Vegas, it feels forced for the tournament’s existing schedule to hold the semifinal and championship games in the City of Sin. With the Las Vegas Aces recently becoming the WNBA’s first back-to-back champions in more than two decades, plus the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders averaging attendance above 95.5 percent of their stadium capacity, the city is doing fine when it comes to sports. More than 136,000 people attended NBA Summer League games in Vegas this year. By now, it’s all but assured to land an NBA franchise within the next 10 years, so there’s no need to shoehorn in a few in-season tournament games to further test whether or not a permanent team would draw a crowd.

Play the semifinals and the championship game around the All-Star break instead. Dedicated fans would follow the tournament anyway, and adding the pomp and circumstance of All-Star Weekend would bring along some amount of additional viewership as the final rounds would slot more naturally into the regular season. With tournament games already being built into each team’s regular season schedule, adding them to the All-Star slate would provide a nice bracket to the contests and the championship would serve as a nice lead-in to the All-Star game itself, while playing the NBA Cup games in the host city would ensure efficient use of the facilities the NBA is already paying to rent for the weekend.

There are larger financial ramifications at play, of course. Circumventing Vegas would leave money on the table, but to this point, there does not seem to have been money allocated wisely to develop the tournament anyway. This week’s reveal of custom tournament courts for each team gives off the nagging feeling of half-baked implementation and brings up shades of the novelty of 2014’s All-Star dunk contest, which featured an East vs. West team format so universally abhorred that the 2015 contest reverted to the tried-and-true format.

To weave together two idioms, only time will tell whether or not the NBA In-Season Tournament is here to stay… but Father Time is undefeated, and as currently constructed, this tournament doesn’t look like a clear-cut winner. There will be an answer soon enough.