When the In-Season Tournament sprouted as an idea, a major discussion point was why players and teams should care about playing for a trophy not named after Larry O’Brien. What would incentivize players to play harder or teams to strategize for a random collection of games in the middle of the season?
The NBA decided against awarding a playoff spot, a draft pick, or funky salary cap incentives and decided a cash prize and a trip to Vegas in December would suffice. It’s difficult to imagine LeBron James or Steph Curry coveting the $500,000 cash prize, but that’s a nice chunk of change for a player on the minimum or a rookie-scale contract. Teams may also find extra incentive in having games early in the season where the competition level cranks up a half-notch. For example, in the knockout round, a team could test drive a young player to see if they’re ready for the bright lights in May and June. A team with little playoff experience or roster cohesion could fine tune their playoff rotation. The tournament could serve as a sandbox for the league’s most creative coaches. Somewhere Nick Nurse is dreaming about the gnarliest defensive scheme he could deploy in a single elimination tournament.
The Play-In Tournament has provided some highly entertaining and competitive games, but the Play-In is just a ticket for the real playoffs. The In-Season Tournament presents an opportunity for both teams and players to add something to their resumes. As the years go by, In-Season Tournament accolades will slowly drip into the discourse about a player, team, or coach. There will be an iconic In-Season Tournament performance or a championship game disaster. The single elimination format provides an opportunity for teams at the margins to take center stage. Only a handful of teams are title contenders each year, but in theory, any team can string together eight games and win the tournament. That opportunity will be especially meaningful to teams on the outside looking in. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few teams who should really value the In-Season Tournament.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are transitioning out of the Sam Presti draft pick ponzi scheme into a promising young team loaded with talent. OKC probably isn’t ready for a deep playoff run, but with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the bevy of young playmakers around him, they’re poised to upset any team in a single elimination game. The tournament also gives head coach Mark Daigneault an opportunity to sort out his rotation. OKC currently suffers from their own success and Sam Presti’s addiction to making trades. They have 21 legitimate NBA players on their roster and will be forced to cut that down to 15 by the end of camp. Even after the roster cuts, dispersing minutes amongst all of OKC’s promising young players will be next to impossible. Who Daigneault chooses to play in deciding games could forecast which OKC youngsters will be around for the long haul.
Can you name the biggest moment in Hornets history? I certainly cannot. The franchise has never made the conference finals, and since the team was revived in Charlotte back in 2004, they have not won a playoff series. A run in the In-Season Tournament would mean a lot to a franchise like that. They would certainly hang a banner for a tournament win and it’s the kind of accomplishment that would mean more to them than many of the league’s title contenders. There could be no better way to initiate the In-Season Tournament than LaVar Ball standing next to LaMelo on the championship podium. That’s what the tournament should be all about.
Is a weekend trip to Vegas enough to entice DeAndre Ayton into playing hard during the tournament? That’s one of many questions that will be facing this experimental Suns roster this season. The tournament could provide an early look at the role players surrounding the core four players in a competitive environment. Despite Devin Booker turning into a human flamethrower last season, Phoenix couldn’t overcome the shoddy shooting from their role players. The Bradley Beal introduction and new cast of role players will bring many questions for Phoenix, and the tournament may provide an early trial run to seek out some answers.
Sacramento sprung back into relevancy last season through the sublime clutch play of De’Aaron Fox and the power of the beam. With a loaded Western Conference, there’s an expectation that Kings will regress a bit this season, but they’ll be eager to prove last year’s run to the 3-seed wasn’t a fluke. For Sacramento, the tournament provides an opportunity to define themselves as the league’s best up and coming team. Additionally, there is no better environment for a single elimination game than the Golden One Center. Hopefully the beam shines a little brighter for a In-Season Tournament win.
Los Angeles Lakers
There is no basketball argument for this. LeBron James does not need the In-Season Tournament for his legacy or to even challenge himself. The Lakers proved last year they could make a playoff run with very little roster cohesion. However, the Lakers winning the In-Season Tournament would send Laker fans into a frenzy. They would never stop talking about it (at least until the actual playoffs started). Every talk show endlessly discussing the meaning of the tournament. Eventually someone, somewhere, would say that Michael Jordan never won the In-Season Tournament. Maybe the Lakers even hang a baby banner. If Adam Silver wants the tournament to become a huge thing, this is the outcome that gets the most people talking.