NBA reveals groups, rolls out more details of new in-season tournament
LAS VEGAS — “Games of consequence.”
If there was one phrase league executives used when promoting the details of the new NBA in-season tournament coming next November , it was “games of consequence.” In a world with an “I start paying attention to the NBA at Christmas” mentality from some casual fans, the league was looking for a way to add meaning to games and grab some of those fans’ attention away from the NFL and college football.
"[The NBA was about ] finding something that would be additive, but not disruptive,” said Evan Wasch, NBA Executive Vice President, Basketball Strategy and Analytics. “And so we went through a bunch of different iterations to figure out how to do that, how you add this into an already lengthy six-month regular season and two months of playoffs without taking away anything or disrupting in a material way, the traditional season.”
How the league is doing that is folding the tournament into the regular season.
It starts by dividing the teams into six groups of five teams each for the “group play” stage. Those groups were unveiled on Saturday, with three groups from the West and three from the East:
• West Group A: Memphis, Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah and Portland.
• West Group B: Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans, Dallas and Houston.
• West Group C: Sacramento, Golden State, Minnesota, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
• East Group A: Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Indiana and Detroit.
• East Group B: Milwaukee, New York, Miami, Washington and Charlotte.
• East Group C: Boston, Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago and Orlando.
The group play games will be on Tuesday and Friday nights in November, and those will be the only games played those nights (except Nov. 7, which the NBA will take off because it’s an election night). Each team will play four games, two road and two at home.
“Tournament nights, the idea of playing defined Tuesdays and Fridays in November and designating those as tournament nights where the only games played on those nights will be group play games to convey that added importance — that was actually a suggestion from players,” Wasch said. “They said, ‘We love the [WNBA’s] Commissioner’s Cup model, but the games are kind of scattered all over the schedule. We need to know when these games are so that everyone can get up get the added energy for those games.’ So that was a direct player suggestion that we were able to build into the model.”
The winners of each group plus two wild cards will enter an eight-team, single-elimination “knockout stage.” The final four teams will come to Las Vegas for games on Dec. 7 and 9.
How the NBA worked it into the existing framework is that all those games — the group-play games and all the knockout stage games, except the tournament finals — will count as regular season games. The two teams that make the finals will play that as an 83rd game on the schedule, and the stats from that game do not count toward the regular season totals.
Discussing buy-in from players, league head of basketball operations Joe Dumars doesn’t think the league could have done this 15 or 20 years ago.
“What you hear a lot about today’s game is how different it is than the game in prior generations. I think this is an era of newness, it’s different than it used to be,” Dumars said. “I think people are used to that, think players are used to that. They’re used to things being different than the way they used to be. And so I think that’s why it would be easier for this generation of players to buy in as opposed to my generation.”
The other thing that helps is money. Players on standard NBA contracts whose team makes the knockout stage will get a bonus: $500,000 each for players on the winning team, $200,000 each for the runners-up, $100,000 each for players on the two teams that lose in the semifinal games, and $50,000 each for those on the teams fall in the first round of the knockout stage.
All of this will mean a lot of schedule juggling in December. Teams will get an 80-game schedule when the league drops the schedule (usually mid-August), with the teams that miss the knockout stage getting two games added in early December to get to the full 82. Teams that fall in the first round of the knockout stage will get one added game to the schedule, getting them to the traditional 82 also.
The NBA has put a lot of thought and effort into this tournament, it took years — more than a decade — of work to get buy-in from players, teams and owners. However, the success of the play-in tournament and the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup gave the league enough momentum to get the idea through and approved.
Will fans care? TBD. The league knows that will take years to figure out. For now, they are rolling it out with as much fanfare and positive energy as possible.