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The NBA's New In-Season Tournament: What You Need to Know

The NBA is embarking on an exciting new experiment this 2023-24 season with the introduction of an in-season tournament featuring all 30 teams. This tournament represents a major shift for the league and has sparked plenty of curiosity and debate among fans and analysts. In this blog post, I'll explain why the NBA decided to create this tournament, how the format will work, and what it could mean for the future of the league.

Why an In-Season Tournament?

The NBA's decision to launch an in-season tournament is driven by a few key factors.

First and foremost is money. Basketball tournaments are big revenue generators, as seen with March Madness in college basketball. An in-season tournament presents more opportunities for TV deals, sponsorships, merchandising, legal sports betting, and other money-making avenues. The WNBA has already found success with an in-season tournament, so the NBA is essentially copying that model. More games and more at stake means more profit potential.

Second, the league wants to boost interest during a normally slow stretch of the regular season. November and December tend to be lower-profile portions of the schedule before the Christmas day games and hype leading up to the All-Star break. An in-season tournament gives fans something extra to get excited about.

Finally, mimicking the European soccer model aligns with Adam Silver's global vision for the NBA. Soccer leagues overseas have incorporated domestic tournament play along with regular seasons and postseasons for years to varying success. The NBA hopes it can do the same.

How the Tournament Will Work

The inaugural NBA in-season tournament will begin November 3rd and run through December 9th. Here's an overview of the format:

  • Group Stage: The 30 teams are divided into 6 groups of 5 teams each, grouped by conference and 2022-23 record. From November 3rd-28th, each team will play the other 4 teams in its group once. The team with the best record in each group plus two wild cards (the non-group winners with the best records) will advance. These games count as regular season games.

  • Knockout Rounds: The quarterfinals on December 4th-5th feature the top group stage team hosting the wild card team from its conference. The semifinals are December 7th and the Championship game is December 9th in Las Vegas. These games count towards regular season except the championship.

  • Prize Money: There will be a prize pool allotted to players from the 8 teams in the knockout rounds. The further a team advances, the more money its players receive.

  • MVP and All-Tournament Team: An MVP and All-Tournament Team will be chosen based on performance throughout the event.

There are plenty of other logistical details, from tiebreakers to scheduling and days off. But the core components are the group stage, followed by a knockout style tournament for the top teams to crown a champion.

How this could change the NBA season

The in-season tournament is an experiment that comes with risks and upside for the league. Here are some of the potential impacts to watch for:

  • Less importance placed on the regular season and playoffs? With another trophy and prize money up for grabs, there is some concern that regular seasons and the championship could feel devalued. The NBA insists the opposite will happen, with more interest across the entire season.

  • New opportunities for lesser teams. Top teams that dominate the playoffs often coast through parts of the regular season. The group stage should be extremely competitive as teams vie to advance, giving lower seeds a chance to raise their profile.

  • Potential for injuries or fatigue. With high stakes, teams may push their stars more minutes and risk overuse injuries. The condensed tournament schedule could also lead to tired players when the postseason arrives. Health management will be crucial.

  • More league-wide interest and rivalries. Instead of just focusing on tops teams vying for playoff spots, fans will tune into tournament games featuring unexpected matchups and Cinderella stories. New rivalries could emerge.

While the tournament format may seem a bit gimmicky, if it succeeds, the NBA could expand the concept further. More teams, bigger prizes, and greater bragging rights could be added down the line. For now, the league is taking a small step towards changing the traditional trajectory of a season.

The NBA Cup's inaugural run will be a fascinating case study in whether disruptive new ideas can generate buzz and viewership. The league has nothing to lose and much knowledge to gain by trying out an in-season tournament. While it may take a few years to perfect the model, the potential rewards are well worth the experiment. This November and December, basketball fans will get an exciting glimpse into the NBA's future.


Team Groups

West Group A: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers

West Group B: Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets

West Group C: Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs

East Group A: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons

East Group B: Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets

East Group C: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic

Before the drawing, each team was placed into a “pot” based on its record from the prior regular season (2022-23). In each conference, one team from each pot was randomly selected into each of the three groups in that conference. The pots were as follows:

• Pot 1: The teams with the three best prior-season records in a conference. • Pot 2: The teams with the fourth- through sixth-best prior-season records. • Pot 3: The teams with the seventh- through ninth-best prior-season records. • Pot 4: The teams with the 10th-through 12th-best prior-season records. • Pot 5: The teams with the 13th-through 15th-best prior-season records.

Group Play

Tournament Nights will take place every Tuesday and Friday from Nov. 3-28 (with the exception of Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 7, when no games will be played). The only NBA games played on Tournament Nights will be Group Play games. Group Play games will count as Regular Season games for all purposes.

A team will play each of the other four teams in its group in one Group Play game. A team’s record in these four intraconference games will determine whether the team qualifies for the Knockout Rounds. In the event two or more teams are tied within a group, the tie among the teams will be broken according to the following tiebreakers (in sequential order):

Head-to-head record in the Group Stage; Point differential in the Group Stage; Total points scored in the Group Stage; Regular season record from the 2022-23 NBA regular season; and Random drawing (in the unlikely scenario that two or more teams are still tied following the previous tiebreakers).

Eight teams will advance to the Knockout Rounds: the team with the best standing in Group Play games in each of the six groups and one wild card team from each conference. The wild card will be the team from each conference with the best record in Group Play games that finished second in its group. In the event two or more teams are tied for the wild card in a conference, the tie among the teams will be broken following the same tiebreaker protocol as described above (with the exception of the head-to-head record in the Group Stage). Ties within groups will be broken before the calculation of wild card tiebreakers.

Knockout Rounds

The Knockout Rounds will consist of single-elimination games for the eight teams that advance from Group Play, beginning with the Quarterfinals on Dec. 4-5. Teams that win will progress to the neutral-site Semifinals on Dec. 7, and then the Championship on Dec. 9.

Games played in the first and second rounds of the Knockout Rounds (i.e., Quarterfinals and Semifinals, respectively) will count as Regular Season games for all purposes. The Championship will not be counted as a Regular Season game (e.g., such game would not count toward a team’s Regular Season record and a player’s or team’s performance in such game would not count towards Regular Season statistics).

In each conference, Quarterfinal games will be hosted by the two teams with the best record in Group Play games, and the team with the best record in Group Play games will host the wild card team. In the event two or more teams are tied for the higher seed in a conference, the tie among the teams will be broken following the same tiebreaker protocol as described above.

During the Knockout Rounds on days when In-Season Tournament games are not scheduled (Wednesday, Dec. 6 and Friday, Dec. 8), the 22 teams that do not qualify for the Knockout Rounds will each play two regular-season games.

A formulaic approach will determine the matchups for these games using the Group Play standings in each conference (5th-15th). Two of the 22 games will be scheduled cross-conference since there will be an odd number of teams in each conference that do not advance to the Quarterfinals. These cross-conference games will be scheduled between bottom-finishing teams in the Group Play stage subject to travel constraints, and no team will play more than one of its two games cross-conference. The other 20 games will be scheduled within conference featuring teams that are otherwise scheduled to play each other three times over the course of the season wherever possible.

The four teams that lose in the Quarterfinals will each play a regular-season game on Friday, Dec. 8, against the opponent in their same conference.

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