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The In-Season Tournament has potential but needs some tweaks

I like it more than I initially thought I would, but it’s not quite a finished product.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics
Luke Kornet is fired up. Are you?
Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

Imagine for a second that the year is 2030.

Victor Wembanyama has been the best player in the world for quite some time now and has grown to 7’8. LeBron and Bronny James are tearing it up with the Cavs. Alperen Sengun is officially the next Nikola Jokic.

And yes, the Celtics have two championships. Jayson Tatum is still the face of the franchise and is widely regarded as one of the all-time greats. Marcus Smart is wrapping up his career in Boston. Al Horford is an assistant coach. The James Young pick should still pan out any day now.

You’re watching the In-Season Tournament championship between the Spurs and Pistons with your son or daughter, and you casually mention that it wasn’t always this way. Back in your day, this never existed.

“What do you mean, Dad? There was a time where they didn’t have the In-Season Tournament? They only had regular season games? With regular courts? No cash prize?”

“Believe it or not, it’s true, kid. Back in my day, every game was equal. Point differential didn’t matter. Coaches didn’t elect to hack bad free throw shooters in blowouts. Steph Curry was more clutch than Malik Monk.”

“Wow, that’s crazy, Pops! I can’t imagine the NBA without it! Did you like it when it first started?”

That, folks, is an interesting question, and one that would take a while to explain. Here’s where I’m at.

When the NBA first released the idea, my initial reaction was to use a lot of eyeball emojis and question marks. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or disliked it, but I was quite confident it was unnecessary.

I understood the idea of trying to spice up the NBA regular season to “casuals,” but to religious followers, every game is juicy and entertaining for its own reason. I’m a big “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of guy. Why mess with a good product?

Once it started, though – and I didn’t see this coming – I actually ended up liking it way more than I thought I would. Wait a second — this is pretty good. It was easy to tell the games meant more to the players. The stakes were magnified, the action was more competitive and many matchups came down to the wire.

OK, I could get used to this.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

But, at the same time, the traditionalist in me still thinks the whole thing is a little strange. Why are the games spread out over weeks? It’s tiring trying to remember which games are In-Season Tournament games and which are regular games. Dispersing them is an odd choice and zaps some of the fun out of it during the first few games. It doesn’t exactly feel like March Madness.

And why are the courts so shiny and slippery? The NBA is one major injury to a superstar away from a lawsuit and a redo. It’s risky territory. I think they should nix the courts entirely. But if they do keep them, it’s imperative they make them safer. Even on Tuesday, it looked like the Celtics and Bulls had trouble planting and pivoting. It’s hard to justify the risk vs. reward there.

This one’s a little less important, but I still think it needs a better name. The cynic in me wants to call it the Stockton and Malone Throne, but I feel bad they never got a ring, so that may not work. How about the Nothing Regular About It Cup? OK, maybe not. I would say something with Bill Russell’s name, but he wouldn’t stand for this nonsense. Even the In-Season Showdown is slightly better. I’ll keep brainstorming, but I know it needs a boost.

Now, let’s talk about the point differential aspect. Tuesday was straight up bizarre. On the one hand, I’m not gonna lie, it was actually pretty entertaining. The Celtics denied it initially, but you could tell right away it was on their minds. They wanted to win by 23 or more. They stubbornly didn’t want this thing to end before it truly began.

But, I totally get why they felt a little uncomfortable running up the score with the game out of reach. That part needs a tweak. They should restructure the divisions in some way so tiebreakers are less likely. For instance, just say every team that goes undefeated or has one loss advances and figure out the rest from there. That’s one idea; there are many solutions. If they keep the point differential, they should at least play every game on the final day so no team has an advantage.

For those who like chaos, it was exhilarating. For those who like structure, it was nauseating. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I was certainly entertained. Side note: Someone needs to tell the Celtics they have to win every game by 23-plus. That was some serious basketball.

In order to avoid all of this, I have a solution. Hear me out:

  • Add franchises in Seattle in Las Vegas to get to 32 teams
  • Ditch the All-Star Game entirely. Run the In-Season Tournament as a 32-team tourney in Vegas around that time
  • No funky courts
  • Single elimination, losers play regular season games
  • Winner automatically makes the playoffs

This would give it a true March Madness feel, magnify every game even more and make for some legitimately excellent TV. It also wouldn’t disrupt the flow of the regular season in such a choppy way.

So, my overall thoughts on the In-Season Tournament as it stands currently:

  1. I still don't think it’s necessary.
  2. It’s undeniably entertaining.
  3. It needs some tweaks.
  4. It’s both good and bad for the NBA.

Where do you stand? Is this thing going to last? It sure seems that way.

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