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Why Celtics fans should care about the In-Season Tournament

The NBA’s new In-Season Tournament may seem like a worthless gimmick, but I assure you it’s super cool. I pinky promise it is.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

By now, you’ve probably heard something about the NBA’s brand-new fancy European car: The In-Season Tournament. But why on earth should you care?

Lifted largely from the extremely popular and extraordinarily important European soccer tournament known as the UEFA Champions League, the NBA In-Season Tournament will pit all 30 teams against each other in a tournament baked almost entirely into the 82-game regular season. Two teams will play an 83rd game on December 9th for the championship, known as the NBA Cup. Wow!

But the NBA wasn’t just going to copy Europe’s homework and make it look obvious, so here are a few noted differences from the source material:

  • The UEFA Champions League pulls the best teams from multiple leagues, so competition takes place in addition to regular season schedules. Not about to tell players they have to play 90 games instead of 82, the NBA is keeping it contained. Good call.
  • The NBA In-Season Tournament’s knockout rounds consist only of eight teams, instead of the 16 that could have been implemented.
  • Fans and players really really really care about the results of the Champions League, arguably more than that of their domestic seasons. The extent to which people will care about the NBA Cup… is dubious.

But I’m not here to play Debby Downer to what is a very cool way to spice up the first half of the NBA season, a time in the American sports calendar traditionally dominated by NFL football.

The Celtics are fresh off fifteen straight years of not winning an NBA Championship, so inventing a new trophy to chase in addition to the Larry O’Brien may not seem super stimulating. But I assure you, there’s fun to be had, so here’s why you should care.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The In-Season Tournament adds layers to success in an NBA season

Let me get this out of the way right now: the NBA Cup does not and will never hold a candle to the importance of the NBA championship. For a team like the Celtics—perennially on the cusp of greatness—it doesn’t seem necessary.

But think back to the 2013-2014 season, in which Jeff Green captained a 25-57 campaign that made the parquet floor reek of mediocrity. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a shot at something to win?

This may seem preposterous with how stacked the roster is now, but it’s totally possible that the Celtics struggle to start the season. Imagine Jaylen Brown leads the NBA in turnovers for the first month of the season. Imagine Derrick White looking scared and Al Horford looking old. How would Joe Mazzulla and Co. get the ball rolling again? Give the team something to play for, and maybe they can come together.

And then there’s the effect on the rest of the league, something I think will only benefit the quality of NBA basketball.

The key here is the tournament’s timing. Before Christmas, no middling team can truly commit to tanking or going for it, since there haven’t been enough games to see what’s what. This, combined with the automatic entry, means no team has any reason not to try to win these games.

If the Charlotte Hornets were to start out 5-20 but make a deep run in the In-Season Tournament, the fan base may feel better about the future. If the Celtics had a calamitous beginning but won the NBA Cup, the winter months of the NBA would have a much nicer tune to it.

Right now, success in the NBA is unitary. Everyone is striving for the same goal, but everyone other than like eight teams is just kidding themselves. The In-Season Tournament should add layers to that.

Imagine if the Celtics won both the NBA Cup and the NBA Championship. That would be glorious.

The Celtics have a real chance of winning it this season

If you’re not interested in any of my idealism about effort and layers of success, here’s a more utilitarian point of view: the Celtics have been dealt a god-tier hand.

Here are the teams in Group C and one fun fact about them:

  • Boston Celtics—made five out of the last seven Eastern Conference Finals
  • Brooklyn Nets—just traded everyone and got swept in the first round
  • Chicago Bulls—been squarely in NBA purgatory since 2012
  • Toronto Raptors—aggressively boring roster that just lost major fire power
  • Orlando Magic—fun young team but in the words of Logan Roy, “not serious people”

This group is barbecue chicken. Not only are the Celtics the only contender in this group, they’re the only team that is even likely to make the playoffs. The Celtics run laps around this group, and a deep run in the In-Season Tournament seems like something that shouldn’t take much effort.

2023 NBA All Star Game Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

It brings the NBA world together in Las Vegas

Why is All-Star Weekend cool? Is it because of the dunk contest that doesn’t include any of the NBA’s best dunkers? Nope. Is it because of the All-Star Game itself, where the best players don’t try before subbing themselves out after five minutes? Nay.

It’s because it brings the NBA world together. Players, coaches, executives, media, and fans all converge on a city and hang out for a weekend. The NBA In-Season tournament will bring everyone to Las Vegas, a city notoriously great at hosting things, for three days.

The production value will be awesome. Media members will record podcasts and attend fancy events. It’s going to be fun, even if you don’t care about the final result.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Why not?

I have one question for people insisting on calling the In-Season Tournament stupid: why do you have to be like this?

Maybe the NBA Cup doesn’t matter, but I don’t see a reason to be a grinch about it. It’s a free product that puts a fancy coat of paint on a notoriously boring part of the NBA season. At best, it’s an awesome addition to an awesome league. At worst, I’ll flip on the Celtics-Bulls game on November 28th and say to myself, “Oh, this is a tournament game. Cool.”

The funniest possible outcome would be if any of the Never-Won-A-Championship Lifetime Achievement Award holders win the NBA Cup before a ring, like if Chris Paul wins the 2023 In-Season Tournament on the Golden State Warriors. If you can’t root for your team, root for that.

Some other possible hilarious outcomes:

  • The Philadelphia 76ers win the NBA Cup, but still can’t get out of the second round
  • Someone gets traded to the NBA Cup champion less than a week before they win it
  • The Los Angeles Clippers make the NBA Cup final, but Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are unavailable due to load management

I hope after all that, you find some way to care about the In-Season Tournament. I think it’s going to be super cool, but even if you hate the idea, I promise there’s something there for you.

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