Is it a nuisance or an unknown? A new tradition or a gimmick?
Something tricky and confusing or just something everyone has to wrap their minds around?
The NBA in-season tournament is probably all of the above, depending on whom you ask. But the NBA is certainly putting all of its weight into making sure the public knows the league office feels it’s important.
Which means sooner or later, you’ll feel it’s important.
The play-in tournament still has that new-car smell, but it’s become a part of basketball lexicon, with teams aiming to chase the back end of it as a measure of success or to avoid the randomness of a one-game playoff by trying to obtain a top-six seed.
While that directly ties to the playoffs, this is a little harder to chew on and for even the most ardent fans, tough to care about because the understanding is still vague.
There are new courts specifically designed for in-season tournament nights, which begin Friday and will take place on Tuesdays and Fridays in November. There are probably two jerseys too many for teams, but teams will wear special jerseys tied to the floor design — and if someone hasn’t yet been bombarded by those preview visuals, the NBA released an “Ocean’s Eleven” style commercial featuring stars participating in a big heist for a different type of gold ball that isn’t the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
And the league partnered with hip-hop royalty LL Cool J and The Roots, with LL Cool J performing a version of his 1991 staple hit, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” with The Roots playing the backing music.
Clearly, the league wants you to see it, hear it, feel it.
Every team has a unique court design for the tournament, which they'll use through the first two rounds. pic.twitter.com/NbyM5kSFid
— Ball Don’t Lie (@Balldontlie) November 3, 2023
And because it doesn’t truly interfere with the 82-game schedule until the semifinals and final take place in Las Vegas in December, it’s added stakes to games that would already be played on the schedule — six groups with five teams, three groups in each conference.
The financial incentive, $500K for each player on the winning team and the same amount for the head coach, presents a simple motivation: If games will be played, you might as well try to win.
“I don’t think I need to motivate our players, really. If you put a prize in front of NBA players, they’re going to compete. This is what they do,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters recently.
“Our players are excited, and I don’t need to give them any special motivation. I do think that because it’s a separate competition, something that we’re going to be taking part in over the next couple of months, I do think that it can sharpen up our game.”
The tournament, along with the newly instituted player participation policy, is clearly aiming to keep player interest along with fan interest in the early weeks of the season. Because of the newness, there’s naturally some confusion.
Hyland probably voiced what a lot of young players are feeling, but it seems the veterans and stars know why it exists and the importance of it. Players like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were seen giving their predictions for group play and the wild cards, and if they’re motivated to be excellent, many others will follow suit.
Of course, the new TV deal the NBA is negotiating with current and prospective partners plays a part, along with commissioner Adam Silver’s willingness to do any and everything to improve the game.
Some will say it threatens tradition, but when the league makes mistakes — at least with Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, it rectified them immediately. It took less than half a season before the NBA went back to its original basketballs after trying synthetic basketballs to start the 2006-07 season.
The players panned it, so they went back.
Here, one wonders if the team incentive isn’t enough to make players play harder than a usual Tuesday night with so many more months of play ahead, and perhaps the league could revisit the possibility of the winning team guaranteeing itself a playoff spot or even picking its opponent once the playoffs begin. For now, the money and pride are what’s at stake.
“You have to understand all these guys are very competitive,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If you put something out there like this, it just adds to that competition.”
And considering Popovich is unleashing rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama right before the start of this, it adds another layer of intrigue to see if he can carry his team — not through a playoff gauntlet, but a mini-run that could perhaps be a harbinger for the future.
But for now, every Tuesday and Friday, you’ll see it, feel it and hear LL Cool J’s opening lyrics: “Don’t call it a comeback.”
The NBA just hopes it’s successful enough to come back.