The first-ever NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals begin on Thursday in Las Vegas when the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Los Angeles Lakers battle for a spot in Saturday’s final and a $500,000-per-player prize for the winners.
By most accounts, the inaugural edition has been a success, though many players and fans initially questioned the event’s purpose. “I’m not even going to lie. I don’t even know what’s going on,” Los Angeles Clippers guard Bones Hyland said before the tournament began.
But as the group stage and quarterfinals played out, the NBA saw its best November attendance ever (averaging 18,208 fans per game), players increased their intensity, and viewership has been up from what the NBA normally sees during this point of the season. For example, group-play games on ESPN and TNT saw a 26% increase from last season’s comparable windows.
So, it’s safe to say that the first NBA Cup awarded on Saturday night won’t be the last.
However, the in-season tournament is young and may need to keep evolving to stay relevant long-term, which won’t be easy.
“It’s unlikely that we’re going to have a radical change to the format going into next year because it was so difficult to even align around this one,” NBA executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics Evan Wasch told Front Office Sports.” But that doesn’t mean that tweaks aren’t warranted [or that] we wouldn’t consider bringing back some things that may have ended up on the cutting room floor.”
One of the early ideas that got scrapped: an eight-game group stage, which would have allowed for all five teams per group to play home-and-aways against each other. (Argument against: That could have diminished the importance of some matchups.) “I expect you would see even more urgency in some of those early games next year, which is a benefit of having only four,” Wasch said.
Still, Wasch said the NBA is open to studying models that could increase the number of group-stage games and create a longer build-up to the knockout round.
For now, the NBA is getting ready to crown a new “champion” in December — and start what it hopes will be a new fall tradition.