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The in-season tournament idea is cool, and here’s why

Of all the league’s proposed changes to the schedule, the in-season tournament idea seems to be the most contentious. But that’s the wrong way to think about it.

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday morning Woj and Zach Lowe dropped a report about potential sweeping changes to the NBA schedule, including a mostly meaningless trim down to 78 games, and a sort of dumb and irrelevant sounding play-in tournament for seeds seven-through-10 in each conference for the right to get waxed in the first round by a vastly superior team. There’s also talk of re-seeding the conference finalists, which seems like a half-baked way of trying to appease conference abolitionists. All of those ideas fall somewhere in the range between harmless and sorta dumb. But among the very important and populous faction of People Online Who Like Basketball, it’s the lone very good idea to emerge from the report that seems to be the most contentious. For some reason folks seem really against the proposed fun and cool, European footy-inspired in-season tournament.

What’s the biggest issue facing the league right now? I mean, I’m not really qualified to diagnose that, but it seems anecdotally like the overlong and meaningless regular season is a bit of a sticking point for enjoyers of the sport both casual and intense. Scaling the season back by the proposed four games won’t solve that problem, and even with a couple extra teams in the playoff mix, those races won’t do much to punch up the dregs of December and January, where the league’s Transaction Industrial Complex pushes talk of actual games out of the discourse for months ahead of the deadline.

Under the proposal, the Primo Pasta NBA Cup would play out in the post-Thanksgiving window of the schedule, around the time the sheen and excitement of a new season begins to wear off for casual fans, and we’re just about done learning how good teams are. What better time to inject some stakes?

With divisional group stage match-ups doubling as real and meaningful regular season games, Wednesday night Kings-Suns games in December will become more than just Wednesday night Kings-Suns games in December. Let the tournament run into January and you’ve successfully made the part of the schedule that drags the most ass into an exciting jumping off point for trade season, the stretch run, and the race to get into the play-in tournament. Wrapping things up ahead of the deadline would allow sellers to keep their vets for a tourney run — and maybe even boost their value! — before entering the deadline with an eye on the future, free of fear that a deal might derail their chance at a Kaiser Permanente League Cup title.

One of the main arguments thrown out against the tournament is that players and teams won’t care about it. Activate your right brain a little, man. With a touch of creativity the league can make it something people will give a shit about. Contract bonuses for players, an allotment of lottery balls for the winner regardless of their regular season standing, or if you really wanna get bold, a guaranteed fourth-seed and home court in round one of the playoffs could help amp up the stakes; the last thing sounds like a lot, but it can’t be any worse than handing out a top-three seed for simply winning your division — a practice we’re barely a decade removed from. One or all of those carrots would get teams on board. Have Tiffany’s whip together a bitchin’ trophy and hype it up enough and players will in fact come to believe that it matters, too.

In time it’ll begin to juice up The Discourse us content piggies love so much. I can already envision myself calling Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe ‘tournament-ass players.’ Conversely, the legends of lesser known stars on teams without a real shot in the post-season would have a platform upon which to blossom. In 20 years, Hall-of-Fame debates will include arguments like “what about that time Player X* averaged 40 a game and dragged his sorry ass team to the 2024 Manscaped Classic championship?”

(* — Player X will almost certainly be Devin Booker.)

We’ll get title teams that also pull off a run to the Love’s Truck Stops NBA Bowl, and fans of those teams will get to throw out the League Double as a reason for why their team’s championship owned harder than others.

And look, no one with a brain will argue that a win in the Preparation H Cup will be more important or special than a championship. But we also don’t need to be such binary ghouls about giving teams reason to celebrate. For a league about which the most common complaint from normies is that things are too predictable and too few teams have a shot at a title, an extra trophy to play for gives teams with no shot in hell in the spring a chance to salvage something out of the season — or at the very least give their fans some warmth to cling to during the harsh winter months. You can’t tell me Wolves fans, with all the shit their team has dumped on them for the last decade and a half, wouldn’t get juiced for a Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper Hoops Cup finals run, and then proceed to buy the NBA Store out of all the league cup champs gear in stock. As a Raptors fan, don’t lie and say that you wouldn’t have been thrilled to see Bargnani’s 12 Games of Competence coincide with a tournament run. At that time you’d have eaten up any shred of hope or excitement.

The proposal isn’t perfect, and will certainly change as it goes through various stages of league and Players Association approval. Having just eight teams thrown into a knockout round limits the number of single elimination games, which is kind of the main appeal of the whole thing. And inserting extra intense games into an otherwise chill part of the schedule does run counter to the pro-health movement the league has undergone in recent years.

The player safety concerns are definitely valid. But at the same time, it’s an entertainment product at the end of the day. As it stands, the chunk of the NBA calendar that truly engages the fan base, during which guys are trying hard, is a fraction of what it should be. With a little imagination, it doesn’t have to be that way.