The In-Season Tournament For Even The Least Of Us
11:44 AM EST on December 7, 2023
It's still too early to say that the NBA's in-season tournament is either a success or failure, as all the ligaments haven't been counted yet, but enough people outside the normal soloists in Adam Silver's ongoing chorus have made enough waves about it to call it a draw. Which is fine. It's still very much a contrivance, true, but as the society more earnestly embraces a culture of perceived rather than actual value, you learn to play with the money on the table rather than the money you wish was there. Besides, it's one more opportunity to extract value from the LeBron tree, and nobody is immune to that level of intoxicant.
But LeBron doesn't need the added pre-holiday visibility, not in December, and neither does Giannis Antetokounmpo or Zion Williamson (Tyrese Haliburton is on eternal scholarship here so keep his name out of your facial caves). But there are needy cases who need it, the neediest cases of all.
Your Pistons, your Wizards, your Trail Blazers, your Spurs: all yearning to be a little less awful and needing all the practice they can get. If the in-season tournament is such a good idea, why not one for the least of them all, the ones who have to date played essentially a regular season of games (81) between them, and won 14. They are collectively the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies, only without the excuse of having Blue Edwards and Bryant Reeves as starters.
We mention this first because the Pistons had a chance to beat Memphis last night but went scoreless for nearly the first four minutes of the fourth quarter and lost by 14, a valiant effort if you define "valiant" as "typical." We also bring it up because, while people are pointing to Wizards-Pistons as the game of the year even though it isn't for another six weeks and change, the schedule has lots of second-knuckle-deep fingers in the eye between now and then. There's an in-season tournament for the other end of the league right there in front of us, and they can play it during the All-Star Break, since Silver is so keen on zhuzhing up the second preseason—er, the regular season.
See? There's an idea here, and it takes the kind of visionary who can fluff the memory of Henry Kissinger to make it happen. Maybe right around the All-Star Break, when the only one of them—Pistons, Wizards, Blazers, Spurs—who might be busy is Victor Wembanyama, and that only because he'll still be the new flavor in the freezer.
And it's not like we can't use the results of the last in-season tournament as a guide, as the four designated teams went 1-15 in the group stage of that, and the win was Portland beating the fifth-worst team in the league, Memphis, by two. But let's say, like the college football playoff, we aren't including enough teams. Who's not for signing up the Grizzlies without Ja Morant, or the Bulls without Zach Levine, or the Hornets without LaMelo Ball, or the Jazz without Lauri Markkanen (who missed last night's nailbiting 147-97 loss to Dallas with a wonky hamstring)?
But no, as this is still an experiment, it's better to keep this at four—and these four, with their combined ongoing losing streak of 38 games, are the gift that keeps on giving, usually in the form of turnovers, where three of them rank 27th, 28th and 29th, and the other, Washington, makes up for in style points what it lacks in quantity just by having Jordan Poole.
And even here the field is not equal, as the Pistons have lost 18 straight and play only three teams with losing records—the Jazz twice, the Warriors once—between now and Wizardpalooza. And the Spurs, still breaking in the new lad, have dropped 15 in a row. Many of these losses have been semi-competitive in that the final margin was single digits, and their forthcoming schedule before the titanic Wizards game (Blazers twice, Bulls twice plus Jazz) allows them to create a bit of momentum before Jan. 18.
But they have all proven in the first quartile (h/t Jim Irsay) that they have the stuff of legendary teams, like the '73 76ers (nine wins) and '12 Hornets (seven in 59 games). If right now is about the league getting all the LeBron it can, it also needs to establish greater showcases at the building end of the standings—which, by the way, is what the league will start calling the 11th through 15th teams in each conference from here on out if we know how hide-the-facts branding works.
And the in-season concept needs a bit more road-testing anyway, just to see if the same conditions (more money, greater cash, and larger financial rewards) work universally. It will beat the hell out of the skills competition for entertainment.
Now, this won't happen, because such a notion needs planning and selling, though anyone willing to sell Kissinger will sell anything. Plus, the ads have already been sold for the G-League dunk competition brought to you by DeSoto. But we are resourceful as well as snide, and can make up our own based on games already scheduled, as long as we are allowed to borrow the Jazz a couple of times. To wit:
Dec. 14: Jazz at Blazers.
Dec. 21: Wizards at Blazers; Jazz at Pistons.
Dec. 28: Spurs at Blazers.
Dec. 29: Spurs at Blazers.
Jan. 3: Pistons at Jazz.
Jan. 10: Spurs at Pistons.
Jan. 15: Pistons at Wizards.
Jan. 20: Spurs at Wizards.
Jan. 25: Jazz at Wizards.
Jan. 26: Blazers at Spurs.
Jan. 27: Wizards at Pistons.
Jan. 29: Wizards at Spurs.
Feb. 8: Pistons at Blazers.
See how easy it is? Already scheduled, if you don't want to disrupt the magic that is mid-February Indianapolis. It’s the perfect all-weather road test for Silver's moment of inspiration, and only at the cost of some retinal damage. That’s a small price to pay, to see if Silver can overcome his lack of historical perspective in search of a future that looks more and more like the Carabao Cup.