How the NBA can differentiate a possible in-season tournament from the rest of its schedule

Death, taxes … and vague reports about the NBA instituting an in-season tournament. They are the three certainties of life, and it seems as though we’ve made about as much progress on the third as we have on the first two. The idea has been out there for years, seemingly a priority of commissioner Adam Silver’s, but rarely have tangible updates been offered. “The NBA is discussing having an in-season tournament in future seasons, with $1 million per player in prize money,” The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Monday. “The concept was discussed on a Competition Committee call today.”

At this stage, we have a proposed prize and … not much else. When is this tournament going to take place? How will it be structured? How will teams be incentivized to care after decades of being told that the end-of-season championship is all that matters? How will American fans unfamiliar with European soccer’s less myopic seasonal structure approach that same question? 

There are eventually going to be answers to those questions, but all of the years we’ve spent waiting suggests that they probably aren’t going to be all that innovative. As progressive as the NBA tends to be compared to other sports, professional leagues tend to be bound by inertia. It took a pandemic to institute the play-in round, and even that was initially done on a provisional basis. If an in-season tournament ever does come, the likeliest form it will take will be a somewhat standard single-elimination bracket wedged into the middle of the schedule for a trophy fans have no attachment to. The extra stock of games will appeal to the league’s broadcast partners, but with a new TV deal on the horizon, the league could and should get more creative in developing something that can draw in new viewers while satisfying existing ones. 

But let’s pretend that’s not the case. Let’s imagine a world in which the NBA starts from scratch with the sole goal of creating a tournament (or tournaments!) that captures the public’s interest enough to ignore the season-long chase for a championship. If we remove any of the traditional boundaries that are likely to limit such a tournament’s potential, how could we make the most entertaining possible basketball product?

I’ll propose a number of ideas in the coming paragraphs. Some of them will be good, some of them will be bad, none of them necessarily need to be connected, but they all strive to answer a simple question: How can we differentiate this tournament from standard, NBA basketball? That’s easier in theory than in practice. Think about what an in-season tournament in December or January would actually entail: teams playing against other teams in games with minimal impact on the eventual champion. Would you be more inclined to watch a midseason Lakers-Celtics game just because the winner gets a trophy at the end of it? Diehards might. More casual fans probably wouldn’t. A trophy matters only as much as fans decide it matters, and without the history of the end-of-season championship, it initially isn’t going to mean as much unless we find a way to imbue it with its own identity. The following ideas attempt to do just that. 

The format

Let’s start with a simple question: Do all 30 teams need to be involved in the tournament? There’s something captivating about a cutoff line. Not only does it build stakes into the games preceding that tournament, but if the stakes are high enough for the tournament itself, it changes the entire way teams look at the regular season. If only eight teams make this tournament and the prize is big enough, suddenly giving star players the second night of a back-to-back off becomes more impactful. The schadenfreude of watching big-market contenders miss out due to early-season struggles would fuel significant fan engagement. 

But we can take this a step further. Does there even need to be a single tournament? Could we split the concept up into multiple smaller events? An alternative to one 30-team bonanza might be to group teams with some common denominator and have them compete against each other every year for trophies that are exclusive to them. Here are some possible concepts:

  • An ABA memorial tournament. Let the Pacers, Nets, Nuggets and Spurs battle it out for a red, white and blue trophy. They could bring back the classic red, white and blue ball, wear throwback jerseys and name it after a league legend (the Erving Invitational has a nice ring to it).
  • How about a California Classic between the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors and Kings? Or a Texas Triangle round-robin between the Mavericks, Rockets and Spurs? Pick any geographic lines you’d like and we could probably create a compelling competition. 
  • Perhaps a tournament of champions? Perhaps the last four franchises to have won a championship get invited, with each new champion knocking out a previous participant.

There are endless possible iterations here, but this approach would serve a few purposes. Most importantly, it would create rivalries that could extend into the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Having 15-team conferences and a negligible divisional structure makes that significantly harder for the NBA than it is for, say, the NFL, where certain franchises know that they are playing each other at least twice per year in high-stakes games. 

Second, it would be significantly more digestible for local fans. Asking a casual viewer to commit to a 30-team marathon might not be feasible, but if their hometown team is involved in something that is somewhat unique, they might be more inclined to watch. That would make a structure like this something of an on-ramp for new fans, a way for them to get hooked on high-stakes games with a low barrier to entry in the hope that it convinces them to stick with the sport afterward. For more serious fans, it’s a more realistic glimmer of hope. The Spurs aren’t winning the championship this year. They wouldn’t win a single-elimination tournament against all of the best teams, either. But could they upset one superior opponent in the Erving Invitational and suddenly find themselves one game away from an unexpected trophy? Sure!

Scheduling is the obvious obstacle here, especially if these tournaments aren’t running concurrently. They might need to, because taking a chunk of teams out of the pool for a week while a mini-tournament plays out would create issues. But ultimately, these teams all have to play each other a certain number of times anyway. If the only difference is the way that they are grouped, that would seem to be a solvable problem.

The rules

The NBA regularly tests out possible rule changes in the G League, Summer League and lately, even All-Star Games. The problem with doing so, outside of All-Star Games, is that viewership for those games is minimal. It’s impossible to gauge public opinion on a new idea when the only way to judge it is by watching the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, yet purists scoff at the idea of sullying the championship chase with gimmicky rules. 

An in-season tournament is the perfect middle ground. It would give fans a chance to see NBA players in meaningful games work with new rules and decide for themselves if they like the changes. How good would Stephen Curry be with a four-point line? Would games be more exciting if all of them use the Elam Ending crunch-time model? A shorter clock? An in-season tournament could be the NBA’s chance to find out. 

Further, changing the rules for the tournament would accomplish the goal of differentiating it from typical NBA basketball. It could even differentiate each tournament from future in-season tournaments. One season could include a four-point line. The next could use Elam Endings, and so on. The league could even make a television event out of announcing the rules to that season’s tournament. Teams wouldn’t be able to plan in advance, adding suspense to the concept. 

Aside from test-driving changes to the sport, it could also reward different styles of play. In his 2019 book Sprawball, Kirk Goldsberry suggested shrinking the lane to encourage more post-ups. Piloting such a proposal in the tournament would not only give the league valuable data on its viability, but could also give bigger teams a chance to win a more attainable trophy than the Larry O’Brien. This could be true of any number of playing styles and rule changes. The league could create a significantly less predictable product, and in the process, it could help improve the one it already has. 

The stakes

A $1 million prize for players would cost the league $15 million (or $17 million if two-way players are included). The trouble here is that $1 million means more to some players than others. It takes Stephen Curry less than six quarters to earn $1 million, and as salaries continue to climb, more and more players are going to shrug at such a prize. A possible tweak would be to base the prize on a percentage of salary. Let’s say players were awarded a 10 percent bonus for winning the tournament. Only six NBA teams currently have more than $150 million committed in salaries, so not only could that approach save the league money (for the moment, anyway), but it would shift the bulk of the winnings to the players who did the heavy lifting. 

Team incentives are a bit harder to settle on. Some have suggested draft picks, but the entire purpose of the NBA Draft is to increase parity. The tournament-winning team would presumably be a contender, so giving them an extra draft pick would defeat that purpose. Luxury tax savings would certainly incentivize contending owners, but the issue with doing so is that small-market teams rely on those payouts. The owners as a group would never agree to such a proposal. 

This is a tricky balance to strike. The basketball goal for most teams is to win a championship. To get them to take a tournament seriously, they’d have to believe that winning it would increase their odds of winning the championship, but increasing them too much threatens to undermine the regular season. There’s a middle ground to be struck here. Perhaps the winning team could choose its first-round opponent within a prescribed set of seeds, or bypass the play-in round if it earns a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. If a top seed is the tournament winner, maybe that team could win its first-round series in three games instead of four. 

This presents another problem: A static prize would have different values for different teams. A guaranteed playoff spot would mean nothing to a team that was going to get in anyway. If draft compensation isn’t the team prize, the NBA needs to find a way to build a prize on a sliding scale. What is valuable to a No. 1 seed might not be valuable to a No. 7, and vice versa. A universal tiebreaker is a possible workaround, or the league could simply count tournament record within the regular-season standings. In theory, that adds a number of wins to the winner’s total. This is the hardest problem for the league to solve. No answer will satisfy everyone.

The teams

The boldest and by far the unlikeliest twist the NBA could put on an in-season tournament would be shaking up the rosters. If you can see the Knicks and Nets 82 other times in the regular season, do you really need four or five more games with them? Supply is not an issue for the NBA. The goal here is increasing demand. Shaking up rosters might be a way to do it. 

Imagine a tournament based on collegiate ties. Team Kentucky vs. Team Duke for the championship, or an underdog school going on a Cinderella run that rivals March Madness. If nothing else, it would lure college basketball fans over to the professional side for a week. Maybe teams could be based on where players were born. Heck, maybe the NBA could even take the draft format it’s adopted for the All-Star Game and apply it to a mid-season tournament, and then give the cash prize only to the winning team. The spectacle of the NBA’s biggest stars building squads with real financial stakes would be much-watch television. 

There are dozens of reasons why the NBA wouldn’t adopt a plan like this. Imagine the outcry from a franchise or fan base if a player got hurt playing for an arbitrarily assembled team. Tampering would be rampant. Players wouldn’t want to justify their draft picks to scorned friends and teammates. This isn’t happening. 

But our goal here is to create an entertaining event, and despite its numerous flaws, a tournament with new rosters would be incredibly entertaining. That should be the NBA’s guiding principle in constructing an in-season tournament. Fans aren’t going to care about a new trophy just because the NBA tells them to. They need to find a way to differentiate it from the basketball they already get to watch. These are just some of the ways they could do that.