NBA Fact or Fiction: How to improve the in-season tournament

Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[ Last week: Mark Cuban, Miriam Adelson, the NBA and the ethics in business ]

This week's topic: The NBA in-season tournament is as good as advertised

The NBA's inaugural in-season tournament can be considered nothing but a rousing success, as we predicted in this space when we broke news of its format. (Fact or Fiction truly is the oracle you deserve.)

It has given us pre-Christmas basketball with real stakes for the first time in forever. The championship game will pit the bluest of NBA bloods, LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers, against a rising superstar at the helm of a young roster for a franchise that has not won a title since the ABA days, Tyrese Haliburton's Indiana Pacers.

As James told reporters after his team's semifinal blowout of the New Orleans Pelicans, the worst game of the knockout rounds yet still an experience, because we can never be reminded enough how wild it is that a soon-to-be 39-year-old can still dominate a game made for 20-somethings, "Adam Silver is a genius."

The Milwaukee Bucks even provided our first report of locker-room turmoil in the fallout of a knockout loss.

(As an aside, what a fascinating contrast between the the size and experience of the Lakers and the speed and youth of the Pacers. And a chess match for Haliburton, who sees it all, and James, who has seen it all.)

We can acknowledge this is good and fun and also concede it can be much better. Let us count the ways.

1. I like the stylized courts, if only because it made one of my daughters ask, "Wait, why is the floor like that?" It led to an explanation of the tournament, and each time she saw it again, she knew what was up. If a 7-year-old can figure this out in a few minutes, everyone should recognize the IST when they see it.

Maybe don't make the courts so slippery next time. Maybe host the games in the state's coolest high school gyms. Definitely make better City Edition jerseys. Let's keep workshopping the creativity here.

2. We need a set week or whatever it takes to play the in-season tournament games consecutively. Spacing them out removed all drama from the first three games of pool play. Most folks randomly discovered from the court every so often, Oh, tonight is one of the tourney games. Some teams were three games in when the Toronto Raptors played their first. Interest increased tenfold on the final night, when the stakes were set.

Every other night for nine straight days should be a tournament night. Each team plays four of those nights and gets one off. Build it around Thanksgiving (not on Thanksgiving) and make it a weeklong conversation.

3. You need 24 teams playing on the last day of pool play at the same time. (Since there are six groups of five teams, not everyone can play on one night. That will have to wait until the league expands to 32 teams.) The Boston Celtics, for example, had an advantage knowing exactly how badly to beat the Chicago Bulls on the final night of pool play because the Orlando Magic already established the group's top point differential.

4. The groups should be the six divisions. The league has removed just about all the juice from divisions, other than the occasional playoff tiebreaker. Get some bad blood flowing again among division rivals.

5. This would allow the NBA to consider neutral sites in each region for the entirety of pool play. The Northwest Division spends a week and a half in Seattle or Vancouver. The Connecticut Sun host the Atlantic Division. The Southwest Division travels to Mexico City. Get St. Louis and Louisville back in the NBA game.

6. The home crowds for the quarterfinal round of the in-season tournament were electric, so I'm not entirely sold on neutral sites. I originally thought all knockout rounds should be held in Las Vegas, but you could hear a pin drop in Thursday's semifinal between the Pacers and Bucks. Maybe more passionate crowds develop over the years, as people become more familiar with the tournament. Let's sit on that one for a bit.

7. Can we not have any 2 p.m. local time starts for a semifinal game?

8. I understand the NFL now has a stranglehold on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays, but could we not schedule knockout rounds so two of the four nights do not conflict with football? The NBA introduced regular-season knockout games to sports fans for the first time, and a thrilling opener between the Pacers and Celtics went head-to-head with Monday Night Football, which drew more than 16 times the viewership. ESPN's NFL pregame and postgame shows outdrew the tourney. Even midnight SportsCenter did better.

As Sports Media Watch noted, those two knockout games "rank among the three least-watched on TNT or ESPN all season, not surprising as they were the first games on either network to compete with the NFL."

I am wondering if this should all lead into a championship game on Christmas, a day the NBA has traditionally owned, although the NFL is infringing upon that, too. This could help them take it back.

9. Four teams — the Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic — finished with 3-1 records and failed to advance beyond pool play. The realization that the Nets needed to beat the Toronto Raptors by more than they did in their fourth and final IST game made for a fun wrinkle. Still, should the league consider expanding the knockout field to 12? The top two seeds in each conference get a bye. This year, that would have meant the only four unbeaten teams in pool play earned a night off.

Or should the tournament expand so teams play each opponent twice, limiting the need for tiebreakers and prolonging the group stages? Just two straight weeks of IST in the middle of November. Food for thought.

And the top seed in each group should absolutely be able to picks its opponent in the first knockout round. Forge new rivals from one team publicly identifying another as the one it feels like it can beat the easiest.

10. Let's improve the prizes. Currently, each player from the championship team earns $500,000. Players on the second-place team each receive $200,000, and those on the other two semifinalists get $100,000 apiece. Evan Wasch, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, said in his Reddit AMA, "At one point we considered making the tournament winner-take-all with $1 million per player, but teams and players thought it was important to spread the prize money among all eight teams that advance to the knockout rounds." Teams and players think a lot of things. Winner-take-all is the way to go.

Even better, hold a lottery to pick one fan for each team. If that fan's favorite team wins it all, the players each get $500,000, and so does the fan. We get to learn all about these fans and become invested in their future earnings. Imagine the fans of the two finalists sitting side by side in the front row, sweating out a title game.

Maybe it should be a local charity. It should probably be a local charity. We might need to think this one through, but the tournament does need some other incentive to get fans more invested in the outcome.

I do like the idea of the champion earning (at least) an automatic berth in the play-in tournament. That would be no small concession for fans of the Pacers, whose team has not made the playoffs since 2020.

Another intriguing idea from a Redditor: The NBA Cup winner gets to host the next season's All-Star Game.

11. Why not find a way to keep this momentum going into January and February, the real doldrums of an NBA season? Host another single-elimination tournament for all 30 teams (the first-place team from each conference gets an opening-round bye) leading into the All-Star break. (Apologies to the schedule-makers.)

12. We have confirmed with the league that the NBA Cup trophy is an actual cup from which you can drink, perfect for players celebrating in Vegas. This was not immediately clear in photos and details released this week. "It's heavy though," we hear from those in the know. One thing we have been unable to confirm: How much liquid the trophy holds at once. A full beer? An entire champagne bottle? This is the important info.

Determination: Fiction. The NBA's in-season tournament is great, but it can be so much better.