Why NBA play-in tournament paves the way for a mid-season tournament

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum drives to the basket during the Eastern Conference play-in game on May 18, 2021. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Are you loving the NBA’s play-in tournament experiment? Good. Because you better get used to the tinkering. First implemented as a way to alleviate the competitive disadvantage of an unbalanced due to the 2020 season being paused and the league resuming in a bubble, the play-in was brought back this year for the 72-game season to counterbalance the fact the 2021 season was 10 games shy of a normal regular-season length.

Now, not only is the play-in here to stay, it is a precursor to another change that may soon be implemented to supercharge the regular season — a mid-season tournament. The two ideas have always been a package deal for league decision makers, and now that they’ve snuck one in they’ve likely calmed the traditionalists’ fears enough to open the door for more outside-the-box thinking.

After initial skepticism, the biggest NBA storyline on TV for the last month has been the play-in.

It’s made the last few weeks fun and made them matter. In previous years, the end of the regular season only mattered in fantasy basketball, as real-life conversations were about DNP-CDs and tanking. There was far more discussion about teams manipulating their record to land on favourable sides of the NBA bracket than there was jockeying for position to get into the playoffs.

This year, instead of stars resting, we had Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, DeMar DeRozan, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum all playing in meaningful regular-season games over the last couple of weeks.

The Memphis Grizzlies vs. Golden State Warriors game at the end of the regular season essentially become a playoff game.

Then you get six extra games as a playoff amuse-bouche.

If you’re not the Los Angeles Lakers, how do you not like this?

Like it or not, this isn’t going anywhere, and this season is proof of why. Is it a gimmick? Yes. But does it illicit competition, drama and plot lines? Also yes. Is it a sign of more to come? Most likely.

Nothing is an accident. The play-in in the 2020 bubble was a trial for doing it full-time. The NBA G league expanding to Mexico is a trial for having an NBA team there full-time.

Enter the NBA’s mid-season tournament idea.

The NBA is already testing it as it’s been implemented for the 25th WNBA season. For the first time ever, the league is going to have the Commissioner’s Cup, where 10 regular-season games in the first half of the season count towards a mid-season tournament. They have sold the rights to Amazon, diversifying who their broadcast partners are.

Reportedly, the potential name for the NBA mid-season tournament is the “Stern Cup,” an ode to former commissioner David Stern. After Adam Silver took over for Stern, he has pushed the envelope in many facets and has had no sacred cows. Those progressive steps including creating a league in Africa, tapping into the popularity of e-sports, and embracing both sponsorships on jerseys and legalized betting.

All were decisions traditionalists would raise an eye at, but all were about creating additional revenue opportunities and content for league partners.

In the past, Silver has discussed reducing the amount of regular-season games to help lessen the physical toll on players and make every game mean more and seem like more of an event. But lessening that inventory of content means decreasing revenue. And the NBA, like all businesses, is looking to grow revenue year over year, not shrink it.

A mid-season tournament, if taken out of the pool of already existing regular-season games, can help drive interest and grow revenue through new broadcast deals, and unique sponsorship and merchandising opportunities. Imagine a limited-edition jersey just for the mid-season tournament? The possibilities are endless.

To start for some, it will be a hard sell because it’s hard to follow up. But we’ve been able to follow games with different meanings in European soccer — a model Adam Silver is fond of — since its inception.

People also complained fans wouldn’t “get” the play-in tournament. But all it took was one explainer video, and people got the hang of it. There is no reason basketball fans can’t figure a mid-season tournament out as well.

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One of the worries about a potential mid-season tournament is that fans won’t care because it’s not the playoffs. But why do fans care about anything?

The vast majority of fans that watch, cheer, read or debate know the entire time their team isn’t going to win a championship. How many teams have a legitimate shot to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in any given year? Five? Maybe 10 max? We had a bunch of years not too long ago when the answer was closer to two. If there are games on and teams competing, fans will care and fans will watch.

And if you don’t think the players will buy in, you’re wrong. Players are driven by two things — the opportunity to compete and the opportunity to make money. This would provide both. In the WNBA mid-season tournament, players of the winning team get a minimum of $30,000 with the runners-up taking home $10,000. The MVP gets $5,000. You can inflate those salaries to scale for NBA players, but the bragging rights are what’s really what will give this concept energy.

Look at the 2021 Toronto Raptors. It was clear the season was lost for some time, but could a mid-season Cup have made the Raptors’ season more interesting? If they only had to get hot for a select period of time, could they lean on their championship DNA? No matter what the answer is, if the fans believed it to be true, the apathy that surrounded the team for the last few months could have been replaced with intrigue — at least momentarily.

It’ll be more than a Cinderella story for the Warriors to compete for a title in 2021, but could this incarnation of the Warriors have channeled Davidson-era Stephen Curry and won a mid-season tournament? That would be more realistic, thus giving the tournament legitimacy.

The reality is the vast majority of teams don’t have a realistic chance to win a championship, yet fans still care and players still compete. So, if you add a mid-season Cup that more teams had a chance to win, they’d care.

There are teams who hang division banners. Don’t tell me that this tournament wouldn’t be a point of pride if and when teams won it.

It’s coming. And it’s coming at a time that you’ll digest it more easily thanks to rapidly changing views on the play-in. And despite what traditionalists may say, it’ll mean more meaningful basketball, more stakes, more trophies. Everybody wins.

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