They all stood up, the fans who sold out the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday night, as Victor Wembanyama jogged onto the square. That the game meant nothing, that the squads consisted mostly of dreamers whose hopes would eventually go unfulfilled meant nothing.
They stood up because this was a moment — the 7.5-foot tall No. 1 pick overall was stepping onto the court for the first time as an NBA player.
It was an event – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went to the arena before the game to see the teenager who could become the NBA’s next big man. Wembanyama was struggling, looking more like a hesitant 19-year-old than a finished project.
However, no matter how Wembanyama played, it was an undeniable success as the NBA gave people a reason to pay attention to their product in the middle of summer.
Friday’s success underscores the NBA’s big challenge going forward of creating as many events as possible that feel special. That’s the biggest downside to the extended NBA season — that the big moments aren’t predictable enough.
The league on Saturday unveiled its latest attempt to solve the problem – one tournament during the season.
Over the course of four group matches and possibly three rounds of single-elimination matches, all 30 teams will battle it out for victory the NBA Cup. Tournament matches are played every Tuesday and Friday in November (minus Election Day on November 7th). All games except the Finals count towards regular season leaderboards and statistical leaders.
Teams were divided into three groups per conference, similar to the World Cup draw, based on last year’s rankings. The top two finishers from each group, plus two wildcard teams, advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals.
The Lakers will be in West Group A along with Memphis, Phoenix, Portland and Utah. The Clippers will play in West Group B with Dallas, Denver, Houston and New Orleans. Western Group C consists of Golden State, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Sacramento and San Antonio.
The East pools are: Group A – Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Indiana and Philadelphia; Group B – Charlotte, Miami, Milwaukee, New York and Washington; Group C – Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Orlando and Toronto.
The semi-finals and finals will be played in Las Vegas on December 7th and 9th. In addition to winning the trophy, each player on the winning team will receive a $500,000 bonus.
The goal is to give the games as different a feeling as possible – special uniforms, different pitch designs and broadcast graphics.
All of this is designed to create stakes early in the NBA season, when the games seem like they matter the least.
Expect the change to be met with skepticism and, in some cases, ridicule. Whoever wins the NBA Cup has to make sure that it matters – it’s a must for it to work.
But consider what would happen if the Lakers won. For any organization with such a rich championship history, the NBA Cup seems like just a gimmick. Imagine trying to hang a banner in the rafters for this. Another danger could be that a team like the Clippers wins. With no championships in its history, if the team put a banner on the trophy it would be easy ammunition for people looking to poke fun at it.
The NBA is hardly the first sports league to attempt something like this. The NHL moved games to baseball stadiums. Major League Baseball played a game in a corn field in Iowa. The MLS and Liga MX work together to create a continental competition.
Other innovations, such as linking home field advantage in the World Series to the All-Star Game, have failed. The NBA has continually tinkered with its All-Star Weekend, a player-led draft and targeted scoring of the latest improvements.
The NBA considered rule changes for in-season tournament play, with a target score being the most realistic option. However, once the league agreed to retain tournament play as part of the regular season schedule, such an experiment would no longer be possible.
Will fans care more about these games when all but the league games are special, mostly in name only? The NBA believes it can still win them over.
Finding ways to add big moments, even if they’re more contrived than the organic excitement in Las Vegas for Wembanyama’s debut, is a necessary part of the NBA’s future.
The in-season tournament will be the next innovation. And whether it works or flops, it won’t be the last.