At best, the idea of an in-season tournament in the NBA has received a lukewarm reception from players. The league’s competition committee continues to explore the concept and wants to make it more worthwhile for the players to get on board with the idea. European leagues have multiple in-season competitions aside from their league slates, and commissioner Adam Silver has often floated the prospect to break up the midseason monotony a bit.
The idea kicked around by the competition would put the NBA’s money where its mouth is. Besides another piece of hardware for which teams could compete, the latest discussion centered on giving a more significant incentive to the players for winning.
The mistaken notion the EuroLeague is the only similar competition overseas
While the EuroLeague is the most prestigious of Europe’s club competitions, it is far from the only one. There is a lower-tier tournament called the EuroCup played annually. FIBA Europe also hosts professional tournaments, the Basketball Champions League, and the Europe Cup.
Spain holds the Copa del Rey domestically on an annual basis, Italy has the appropriately named Coppa Italia. Nearly every domestic club league plays some side tournament.
That flies in the face of critics of an NBA in-season tournament. That argument states that because multiple leagues participate in the EuroLeague, it’s different from what the NBA has suggested. Call it the “there’s no point since the same teams play each other all season long” argument.
The recent play-in tournament experiment went well for the NBA. Why not try some other new ideas?
There is one key difference that domestic leagues abroad have. Because of the promotion/relegation system in place in most professional federations, teams from other tiers besides the top level can qualify. It’s not likely the NBA would extend invitations to affiliates in the NBA G League for its in-season tournament.
If the in-season tournament is the stick, what does the NBA want to dangle as the carrot?
The players have a financial stake in how their team performs in the NBA playoffs. Since their contracts technically cover only the regular season, the NBA ensures players aren’t offering their postseason services gratis. Last season, per The Associated Press, the playoff pool was a little more than $20.8 million. First-round losers received $310,745 per team to split among the players. The NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks divvied up roughly $6.1 million.
When Silver suggested an in-season tournament, many players quickly shot down the idea. They cited the extra workload in what is already an excruciatingly long season. Counting the preseason, a team reaching the NBA Finals will play more than 100 games throughout the campaign.
An in-season tournament would add to that, even if the league shortened the regular-season schedule a bit. Television commitments make it impossible for the NBA to shave off too many games without giving their revenue stream a severe haircut.
But according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the competition committee talked about offering players $1 million each for winning an in-season event. Critics quickly point out how little $1 million means to a max-contract player bringing in $40 million or more a season. But there is a flip side to that argument.
An in-season tournament as a player development and incentive tool
Teams aggressively pursuing an NBA championship wouldn’t prioritize an in-season tournament. However, there is a finite number of genuine championship contenders each season. It’s not a poker tournament where you have a chance to win so long as you retain a chip and a chair. The lowest-seeded team to win an NBA title was the 1995 Houston Rockets.
But their No. 6 seed came with an enormous asterisk. They were the defending champions but experienced a lot of roster churn due to trades and injuries. Come playoff time, Houston was playing at a much higher level than a typical sixth seed.
It’s also true that $1 million might not seem like a big deal to a player making 40 times that much in a season. But a rookie on a minimum contract this season makes just a hair more than $925,000. Would doubling his salary be a big deal? You bet it would. And for a guy on a two-way contract, his annual salary is only half the rookie minimum regardless of experience level.
Contending teams could lean more heavily on younger players to give them game experience in the in-season tournament. Rebuilding teams might approach the event as a stepping stone, a chance for a young group of players to experience some success.
And for the team governors, an in-season tournament gives them a shot at another shiny trophy to put on display. It’s an idea with more upside than not, especially when one moves past the “if it’s different, it’s automatically bad” mindset.