Denver's court design for the NBA's in-season tournament Courtesy of NBA on X

As you may have heard (it’d be hard not to with ESPN promoting it to death, even airing a live schedule release), the NBA’s in-season tournament will debut later this week with group play beginning Friday night. Eight teams—four from each conference—will advance to the knockout round, culminating in a December 9th championship game in Las Vegas, where the winner will be awarded the inaugural NBA Cup.

The prize money, totaling over $500,000 per player (a figure comparable to what members of the Denver Nuggets pocketed during last year’s title run), should incentivize teams to put their best foot forward. That would, at least in theory, alleviate concerns of “load management,” a phenomenon that’s come at the expense of both fans and television networks, the latter paying billions in annual rights fees.

Rather than affording the NBA the benefit of the doubt, letting the festivities play out before rushing to judgment, the event has been met with much criticism from fans, many of them exasperated by the league’s decidedly unsubtle marketing push including fresh court designs for all 30 teams.

Of course, this kind of pushback is to be expected. Change, in any form, is jarring, activating our fight or flight instinct. Resistance comes with the territory when you upset the natural order, prompting detractors to sharpen their fangs, lashing out at their fear of the unknown. While in-season tournaments are commonplace in other sports, namely soccer, staging a marquee event so early on the league calendar represents a radically different approach by the NBA, cleverly shifting the narrative away from recent scandals involving guns (Ja Morant), domestic violence (Miles Bridges) and workplace misconduct (Robert Sarver).

Certainly, the league and its broadcast partners have done their part to spread awareness, leaving no stone unturned with an aggressive marketing campaign covering every inch of social media. However, for the tournament to truly resonate with fans, it will require buy-in, not just from players, but from stars, putting the onus on household names like LeBron James and Kevin Durant to legitimize an event with no historical precedent.

The recent World Baseball Classic encountered a similar conundrum, its integrity compromised by watered-down rosters of veteran mercenaries still working their way into playing shape amid spring training. With decisions increasingly dictated by analytics, contending teams have begun treating the regular season as a glorified dress rehearsal, prioritizing the health and wellness of stars while saving bullets for when the games actually matter in May and June. Even with commissioner Adam Silver sweetening the pot, fattening paychecks to ensure their full cooperation, there’s no guarantee players will get up for what amounts to a shameless cash grab, a made-for-television spectacle as inconsequential as the Vegas Summer League or college basketball’s NIT.

It’s a cynical interpretation to be sure, though, in this instance, our skepticism may be warranted. For years, the NBA has been laying the groundwork for an expansion franchise in Vegas, with savvy entrepreneur LeBron James throwing his hat in the ring as a possible investor. Knicks owner James Dolan has planted a similar flag with his Vegas “Sphere,” a state-of-the-art concert venue boasting the largest and highest resolution LED screen in existence. With the Summer League already headquartered there and the in-season tournament shining a similar spotlight on basketball’s forbidden fruit, it’s only a matter of time before the NBA establishes permanent residency in Sin City, further blurring the already murky line between sports and gambling.

Though teams aren’t likely to raise “NBA Cup Champion” banners—that would be akin to the Colts’ infamous AFC Finalist flag that waves atop Lucas Oil Stadium—the in-season tournament, viewed strictly as an entertainment offering, makes for harmless fun, a new wrinkle coloring the winter doldrums of an arduous, 82-game regular season. Still, it’s concerning the NBA has had to resort to this kind of pandering and pageantry, jumping through endless hoops in order to stay relevant with an additional play-in round (expanding the playoff field to a laughable 20 teams), an overhauled All-Star format and, to the chagrin of many, promoting eyesore “City Edition” uniforms in a desperate attempt to move merchandise.

Contrived as it may seem, you have to admire the league’s ambition, summoning out of thin air an event that it hopes will rival UEFA Champions League, a European staple that has become the gold standard for international competition. Gimmick or not, Silver has always been an opportunist, performing a minor miracle with the NBA’s Orlando Bubble during the COVID lockdown in 2020, a seamlessly efficient ecosystem serving as inspiration for what the in-season tournament would later become.

Clearly the NBA isn’t afraid to risk failure, but is begging us to care about a month-long tournament with relatively low stakes a bridge too far? While its success is far from assured and could years from now be lamented as a cautionary tale, the in-season tournament is no more forced or unnecessary than the NFL’s “Pro Bowl Games” or the hopelessly outdated college bowl industrial complex, pitting six and seven-win teams against each other in what is effectively an informercial for obscure sponsors like Bad Boy Mowers (Pinstripe Bowl) and (Boca Raton). If the NFL can claim Black Friday, what’s stopping the NBA from exploring its own imperialist pursuit, using its ever-expanding tentacles to reach new fans?

To its credit, the NBA knows where its bread is buttered, relying heavily on stars with global followings like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic. Even loathsome malcontents like James Harden and Kyrie Irving are good for business, adding a soap opera element to a sport that, throughout its history, has displayed an uncommon knack for making content out of conflict. Those personalities, along with the randomness and unpredictability that make March Madness so intoxicating, give the in-season tournament a narrative thread to pull on, igniting rivalries while showcasing lesser-known stars that, otherwise, wouldn’t get the recognition they deserve.

However inorganic, the in-season tournament promises to be a novel experience, presenting a fascinating case study in both marketing and audience participation. As far as branding experiments go, the NBA could do a lot worse than positioning its abundance of young talent on a national stage, offering a compelling product in new, creative packaging.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.