The Los Angeles Lakers hoisted the NBA Cup Saturday night, and LeBron James was named the MVP of the inaugural In-Season Tournament, bringing to a close the league’s latest experiment. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the tournament — Will players care? Will fans understand it? Will this actually make people tune in to a November or December NBA game? — there was going to be tons of attention around the event either way. But seeing all the passion players had in those games, especially as games moved to Las Vegas, I think it’s safe to say that the In-Season Tournament was a success in its first year.
But that doesn’t mean everything about it was perfect, and surely there will be tweaks to it as the NBA feels out what this could become going forward. We’ll have to see how this new addition to the league’s calendar changes over the years, but for right now let’s assess the winners and losers from the inaugural In-Season Tournament.
Winner: The NBA
Adam Silver must be sitting back with his feet kicked up on a desk somewhere thrilled over how this tournament played out. There were so many haters and skeptics when it was announced, but from the players down to the fans you could tell this tournament mattered. The buy-in from the players was always going to be the biggest piece of the puzzle, but you could tell in that championship game that everyone involved was competing at a high level.
The purpose of the In-Season Tournament was to not only add a new wrinkle to the NBA schedule, but to also add more importance to games in November and December, when fans aren’t fully committed to the season just yet. And now that it’s all wrapped up we can say that it certainly accomplished that goal, especially from a . The Kings-Warriors group stage game on Nov. 28 averaged two million viewers, which is a 93% increase for a game in a “comparable window” from last season. That’s a huge success for the NBA, which constantly has to play second fiddle to the NFL this time of year.
After the Bucks lost to a really good Pacers team in the semifinals, it was reported that for the team’s lack of organization down the stretch. In the final 2:40 of the game, Milwaukee was outscored 15-7 by the up-and-coming Indiana team, and Portis called out the head coach for not putting the team in the right position to win the game. Griffin reportedly took the criticism in stride, but it isn’t the first time there’s been a disconnect between the first-year head coach and his players. In a win over the Heat in November, Griffin said that Giannis Antetokounmpo changed a play he drew up in a timeout, and during a surprising loss to the Bulls last week, Antetokounmpo said that the team sometimes relies too much on talent.
The Bucks have still been successful to start this season, getting out to a 15-7 start and sitting third in the East. But these communication issues between Griffin and the players isn’t a great sign for a coach in his first year. It could just be a learning curve as both sides feel each other out, or it could be the series of events that leads to some changes to the coaching staff in the future.
This is a pretty obvious one, but aside from winning the cash prize and becoming the first In-Season Tournament champions, the Lakers got a chance to play in playoff-like basketball four months before the postseason actually starts. That gives head coach Darvin Ham a leg up on what worked — Cam Reddish in the closing lineup — and what doesn’t. Now L.A. can work on those things over the course of the rest of the season in preparation for a postseason run. Not only that, but the Lakers racked up six wins throughout the tournament that count toward their regular-season record. That brings them to 14-9 on the season, which has them in a three-way tie for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference with the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets. We’ll have to see how L.A. carries this momentum going forward in the season, but right now the Lakers look like a team capable of making a deep playoff run again.
Loser: In-Season Tournament courts
Okay there were a lot of things that worked about the In-Season Tournament, but one thing that may need to be reassessed is the introduction of 30 new courts for the occasion. In theory, having unique courts to set the tournament apart from the rest of the games was a brilliant idea, but execution wasn’t quite there. On several occasions players expressed issues regarding the safety of some of the courts. Luka Doncic said New Orleans’ court was super slippery, and there were spots where the ball didn’t bounce the same. Jaylen Brown also called Toronto’s court into question after slipping and appearing to pull his groin, calling the playing surface “unacceptable.” And on one occasion last minute changes had to be made to the Nuggets court, while the Mavericks never even played on theirs after manufacturing issues.
Given the quickness with how the league had to produce these courts, there were bound to be issues. And now that the league has one year of the IST under its belt I’m sure there will be changes made based on the players’ feedback to ensure there won’t be as many court-related issues as there were this season. Let’s also hope that some better color schemes are used next time, because some of them were truly unwatchable on the television. I’m looking at you, Chicago.
If fans were unfamiliar with Haliburton before the In-Season Tournament, they certainly know his name now. Sure, he was an All-Star last season, and has received high praise to start the year, but being in Indiana puts him a tier below other star players in terms of attention because of the small market he’s in. Well, his performance over the course of the tourney — 26.7 points, 13.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 52.4% field goal percentage, 42.5% on 3-pointers — certainly raised his standing in the league and put him on a bigger stage to show off his talents. He wasleading up the championship game, becoming the only player in NBA history to record 50+ points and 25+ assists without turning the ball over during a two-game span. He’s also the only player in league history with multiple performances where he’s recorded 25+ points, 15+ assists and zero turnovers.
The In-Season Tournament is quite literally the perfect stage for small-market teams and their stars to gain national attention and Haliburton and the Pacers took complete advantage of that. Their run to the title game also showed that this team should be considered more of a threat in the Eastern Conference this season.
Loser: Winless tournament teams
There were five teams that put up a giant goose egg in the group stage: the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. Two of those teams, the Pistons and Spurs, are in the midst of a rebuild with young players so there wasn’t much expected of them, but there’s no reason the Wizards, Bulls and Grizzlies couldn’t record a single win. Especially with Memphis, which lost to a Portland Trail Blazers team during group stage that is arguably the furthest away from contention in the NBA right now. As the IST gains more traction over the years, teams will be further incentivized to be competitive in those games, but in the first season, several teams had some poor showings.
Winner: Las Vegas
While the NBA has tried to stay quiet on where it intends to expand once that day comes, the two most rumored cities that would get a franchise next are Seattle and Las Vegas. So consider the In-Season Tournament a dry run of what having an NBA team in Sin City would be like. Players have talked highly about Las Vegas in the past, and there will certainly be no shortage of people lining up to be in the ownership group of that team, none more vocal than LeBron.
“My enthusiasm about being [in Las Vegas] post-career, bringing a team here has not changed,” James said. “The fans are amazing here. They have everything already: WNBA team, they have a baseball team coming in soon, NFL team, hockey team, F1 was just here over the Thanksgiving week. Everything is here. This is a place that loves great attractions and I think the NBA will be another great addition to this city.”
Even with an early start time for the first semifinal game between the Pacers and Bucks, fans in Las Vegas still showed strong support for the NBA. So while the league may not want to show its cards just yet on where its expanding, Vegas certainly made a great case during the In-Season Tournament as to why it is deserving of one.