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Did NBA In-Season Tournament create something sustainable? Or did it merely serve its purpose to fill the league’s coffers?

Here’s a look back at the first-ever In-Season Tournament and whether it accomplished its goal.

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers: Championship - 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament
LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers hoists the trophy with his teammates after winning the championship game of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament at T-Mobile Arena on December 09, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The first-ever NBA In-Season Tournament is officially in the books, with the Los Angeles Lakers taking down the Indiana Pacers Saturday evening in Las Vegas to win the inaugural NBA Cup. It’s not the ultimate prize as many players referenced during postgame interviews, but it is something the team can celebrate. While the league and its broadcast partners will obviously promote this In-Season Tournament as a thunderous success, there’s still a question of whether this is actually sustainable going forward.

Did the fans care more about the In-Season Tournament?

Fan interest is always paramount for the league, especially in the early part of the season with college football and the NFL still rolling. It’s hard to know if the fans “cared” more because believe it or not, sports fans do have the ability to follow more than one sport at a time. However, ratings were up for local and national broadcasts, so there’s some evidence suggesting more people did tune in and the tournament likely did help with that. After all, these games did still count towards the regular season standings outside of the final.

Even though I didn’t necessarily like the alternate courts used for tournament games, I think that also did drive some fan interest. If you turn on a game and see a court with more color and logos, you wonder what’s going on. And maybe, you stick around because you find out it’s a tournament group game. I don’t know how the players don’t get distracted by some of the court designs, and I didn’t think it was necessary for the knockout games. However, it does help differentiate these games from just another regular season contest.

Did the players care more about the In-Season Tournament?

This is a tricky subject, because in theory the players should care about every single game. As sports betting becomes legal across the country, those making wagers would like to know the players they’re backing are giving it 100% every time. And really, should millionaire athletes need a $500K incentive to be competitive?

Morality aside, the players did say they cared more about the tournament games and enjoyed the format. The knockout games did add a playoff-like atmosphere which many found enjoyable, and Lakers head coach Darvin Ham did say that pressure of a knockout game was helpful to provide guys who hadn’t been in that type of environment some experience early in the season.

I will say players did not sit out these games. Tyrese Haliburton skipped a previous regular-season game while he was dealing with some injuries so he could be good in time for a tournament game. The NBA’s stricter rules on resting star players were also in effect, so there was a decent effort made to ensure these games had the necessary star power.

Were the games more competitive?

I’m going to dive a bit deeper into this one, because I heard it too many times on Saturday’s broadcast without much evidence. These games did still count for the regular season standings, so the teams weren’t playing for nothing. If we assume that a competitive game from a score standpoint is anything with a 6-point margin or less, here’s how many competitive games we got in each group.

East A: 5
East B: 4
East C: 3
West A: 4
West B: 5
West C: 4

There were 10 pool games in each group, so we’re looking at a 50% clip at best of games which were more “competitive” from start to finish. That’s not a significant enough percentage to suggest the tournament format had a major impact on creating a better product.

Did the tournament format work?

The knockout rounds of the tournament were great to watch, since you did have teams participating who many expect will be in contention for the NBA title. Haliburton, a player who normally wouldn’t get much shine, got exposure and the opportunity to dominate on a bigger stage. That was something which wouldn’t happen in a regular season schedule. Of course, the Lakers being able to advance drove some additional interest and likely juiced the ratings a bit. Any time LeBron James is given an extra reason to care, he tends to show up. And he did. Getting buy-in from the players is important, but getting it from the league’s biggest star is paramount. The format did work.

Was this tournament a success for the league? Is it sustainable?

It depends on how you define success. The league’s ultimate goal is to sell this In-Season Tournament as an additional package in the new media rights agreement. So when looking at it from that standpoint, you can see why the league and broadcast partners are promoting it heavily. They stand to gain a lot financially, and this inaugural edition did help in that regard.

As for whether this level of interest is sustainable, I’m still a bit skeptical. The Lakers aren’t going to be in every final. We were extremely fortunate on the injury front, with no major stars suffering long-term injuries early in the season. Hopefully, that continues to be the case. Players didn’t rest as much either, but that might change as this tournament becomes more routine. We’ve already looked into the number of games that were actually close, and it’s not much better than the standard regular season schedule.

At the end of the day, this is something all 30 teams can compete for unlike the NBA title. That does give some of the teams falling in the standings something to fight for. We’ll likely need a few more tournaments to determine the exact value of the product.