Despite having operated with the NBA’s lowest payroll, at $130 million – and having failed to make the playoffs the last three years – the Indiana Pacers are on the cusp of winning the inaugural In-Season Tournament.
In order to do so in Saturday’s final, to claim the NBA Cup, they will have to first defeat LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the league’s marquee franchises, setting up a clear David and Goliath story.
But what exactly would it mean if Indiana prevailed?
The Pacers beat Milwaukee in the first of Thursday’s two tournament semifinal games, kicking off a lively atmosphere in the NBA’s most meaningful games to date in Las Vegas. The scene at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday included a unique crossover of ESPN and TNT broadcast crews, a pre-game concert with Nelly and TLC, and frequent celebrity appearances, with the likes of Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, actress Vivica A. Fox, and boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. present.
“I believe that the NBA can make just about anything happen,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle. “The In-Season Tournament is something that there were many, many skeptics about for many years, and right now it’s all the buzz.”
Worth Hanging A Banner?
The awarding of the NBA Cup, however, presents a broader, still-unanswered question of how seriously teams and fans will treat the victory. The NBA’s creation of the In-Season Tournament was modeled heavily after in-season competitions common to European soccer. And while the intensity of play has met league aspirations, NBA players are divided on what winning would mean.
“I think at this point in my career, because I haven’t done anything yet, I’ll take a banner, but certainly ‘Bron would not answer the same way,” the Pacers’ 23-year-old Tyrese Haliburton told The Athletic.
James, for his part, said he is using the tournament as critical preparation for the postseason.
“I understand this thing has been great, but it’s still December,” James said on the TNT broadcast immediately after defeating the Pelicans in the other semifinal. “But it is another game for us to get better.”