If you haven’t heard, the NBA has introduced a new trophy for its world-class players to chase: the NBA Cup. The means to attain it is the new NBA In-Season Tournament.
The concept of a soccer-style league cup has been circulating in the NBA since the early days of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s tenure. The NBA believes the in-season tournament will boost fan engagement early in the regular season, as the tournament — which includes group play matches and knockout rounds — will take place from November 3 through December 9. It also incentivizes players to give their best effort since all championship team members will receive 500,000 USD each, while the runner-up team players receive 200,000 USD.
Currently, the NBA is in high demand among major media companies like Apple, Netflix, and Fox, which are all competing for its streaming rights. This tournament will likely attract even more media giants to the table, making it a win-win for the league and its players.
So, how does this tournament work? In group play, each conference is divided into three groups of five teams based on their standings in the previous season. Every team will play four games against the other teams in their respective groups — two home games and two on the road. The six teams ranked first in their groups will advance to the knockout rounds, along with two wildcard teams from each conference. The wildcard teams will be the best performers among all second-place teams in their respective conferences.
The knockout round will commence with the quarterfinals and culminate in the championship battle. All these games will be part of the new 80-game regular season, but the teams in the in-season tournament’s finals will technically have to play an 82-game season.
I believe that the in-season tournament is a wise business decision for the NBA as it will attract more attention during a time when fan interest is low. However, I feel the incentives it offers primarily appeal to players with smaller contracts or bench roles. For instance, a superstar like Stephen Curry has little reason to compete for the prize pool, which is less than one per cent of his estimated 2023–2024 season earnings of around $52 million.
Furthermore, the most coveted trophy for players to pursue has always been the championship trophy, awarded to the NBA Finals winner. Teams receive financial incentives for participating in the playoffs, which makes playoff-related titles like the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy more desirable, and so the absence of playoff incentives in the in-season tournament makes it slightly less meaningful for teams.
On the opposite side, another recent addition to the NBA’s roster — the play-in tournament — has recently become a fan favourite, owing to the Miami Heat’s remarkable playoff run this past season. The Heat overcame insurmountable odds, securing the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and defeating the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, and the Boston Celtics en route to the 2022 NBA Finals. They became only the second team to achieve this feat since 1999.
The Heat’s successful run to the finals was made possible only by the recently introduced play-in tournament. In the same vein, only time will tell the fate of the NBA’s latest invention, the in-season tournament.