Why you should care about the NBA Cup

Short post today as I’m traveling all week, but I’ve wanted to get something off my chest for a while now.

Plenty of people out there seem excited about the In-Season Tournament (IST), but many, many more have shown skepticism or outright hostility to the idea.

Why? What is the upside of not being excited about this?

Maybe it’ll suck in the long run, but so far, it’s been objectively fun. We haven’t even hit the elimination stages, and it’s already seen great buy-in from players and coaches, had a few classic games, and been the source of several on-court brouhahas, most notably the absurd Klay Thompson/Jaden McDaniels dust-up that led to Draymond Green putting Rudy Gobert in a headlock and dragging him around the court — one of three separate physical altercations on the day across different games. It sure seems like the pomp and circumstance around the tourney has elevated the intensity of the on-court product, and isn’t that what we’ve always wanted?

If you’re like Bones Hyland and still fuzzy on the tournament’s details, the full description can be found here. But the short version: round-robin group play occurs most Tuesdays and Fridays in November and December. The six group winners and one wild card per conference meet in an eight-team single-elimination bracket, culminating in a final four in Las Vegas. Every IST game still counts for a regular season game except the championship — those two teams will end up with 83 games on the season.

The incentives are rising cash prizes for teams as they advance in the tournament, including a cool $500,000 per player for the eventual champions.

This is not, and is not meant to be, a replacement for an NBA championship. Winning one will not, and is not meant to, carry the same weight. But it’s still a single-elimination tournament that should result in some fun Cinderella runs and fantastic storylines. It adds a new spark to the NBA season.

The league has launched a full marketing blitz for the IST, including controversial, garish courts (which I predictably love. Variety is fun!). They know that getting fan buy-in is going to take years. The easiest way to get the fans excited? To put out a compelling product, and so far, so good.

We’re still in the group stages, but players and coaches are nearly universally pumped. A very small sample:

Tyrese Haliburton: “We know there’s higher stakes in this game. It’s an In-Season Tournament. I’ve never played in a playoff game. I’ve got to take this very seriously because it’s my first time really competing for a championship, or having a chance to. I take it very serious.”

Draymond Green: “You just saw two teams competing… We talk about this In-Season Tournament… it’s a playoff game. It was a fun game to play in; the intensity level was there. So job well done to the NBA and this type of excitement in November.”

Kristaps Porzingis: “I love it… Of course we want to win it. We want to win everything. Why not be the first-in season tournament champs? Of course, it’s going to be tough. There are many good teams. But any competition, any game, any quarter, anything, we want to win it all. And we’re going to give our all to to win it.”

And Anthony Davis, getting to the heart of the matter: “$500 [thousand] sounds real good to us. It’s going to bring that juice, you know what I mean? … I heard one of our players, I’m not going to say who but he was like, ‘Man,’ when we beat Phoenix, ‘That’s one step closer to this $500. I’ve never had that before.’ So it’s like, that’s a little extra motivation.”

I’m sure as teams get eliminated, we’ll start to hear a little too-cool-for-school chatter. Remember Lou Williams, and remember that grapes sure can taste sour. Right now, though, mouths remain unpuckered. All the players seemed excited about the challenge, the history, and the money.

As for the coaches, while they’ve been a little more measured outside of boilerplate talk praising the IST for creating a playoff-like atmosphere, the proof is in the pudding. Several squads have played their starters in blowouts or have encouraged players to amp up the scoring at the end of games to improve their point differential (and, thus, their tiebreaker standing). Coaches are hypercompetitive, too, and they want to make history. Front office guys are in full support, even if it’s self-serving — if owners are getting antsy for results, an NBA Cup win could provide a little extra job security.

The league has pushed its teams to make sure their stars play in these games, and to encourage that, none of them have been on the second night of a back-to-back. (Injuries are injuries, but we’ve seen no big-name load management, give or take a few Al Horford types). There have been close finishes, fiery emotions, and more than a few technical fouls. The courts, understandably, aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but they certainly tell you that something different is happening. And we haven’t even gotten to the knockout rounds yet!

As Porzingis said, competitive dudes want to win cool things. The IST is certainly not an NBA Finals, but it isn’t nothing, either. It can prove that a newly-constructed superteam has the juice (think if the Suns or Celtics win this year). It could be a springboard for young, on-the-rise teams to use as a stepping stone to future contention (imagine if the Thunder play their starters 42 minutes to nab the first NBA Cup!). It could even further validate a dominant team’s success; the Nuggets don’t have many non-believers left, but an IST victory would further mark them as this year’s team to beat.

The NBA has a vested interest in the tourney’s success, of course, but for more reasons than you may think: a new report from Sports Business Journal links the tourney’s implementation to Netflix’s desire to create a “Drive to Survive”-style show about the NBA. As the NBA looks ahead to its next media mega-contracts, creating new, bespoke partnerships with multiple companies may be the best (and only) way to get the revenue windfall they want. And if big-name tech partners want an in-season tournament that Adam Silver’s been pushing for years, well, sounds like a win-win!

If you weren’t excited about the IST before, imagine if it led to a Hard Knocks / Drive to Survive documentary series about the NBA (even if just through this narrow tournament window). Tell me you wouldn’t watch that!

In other words, the IST has produced fantastic games and immense drama, gotten buy-in from nearly all players and coaches, created new storylines and reasons to pay attention early in the season, and could lead to a fantastic new behind-the-scenes look at the NBA. What about thatin that sounds bad to people?

For those of you still holding out, remember that these are still regular-season games. They still count just as much as they did before. There’s no downside here.

Am I overenthusiastic? Maybe. But it’s fun to be excited; more people should try it. 

Check out www.basketballpoetry.com to get stories like this straight to your inbox!

Share this article:

Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.