NBA FA Cup? Potential Of The New In-Season Tournament

NBA In-Season Tournament Logo 2023-24

What we know so far about the NBA’s In-Season Tournament is it will consist of six groups of five teams to decide seeding for a single-elimination tournament leading up to a Final Four hosted in Las Vegas December 7-9. Aside from the championship, all In-Season Tournament games are regularly-scheduled regular season games meaning the 82-game season is still intact. The NBA has more information on the tournament’s format.

What the NBA is going through right now is as frustrating as it is exciting for league supporters. On one hand we’re enjoying a league-wide elevation of skill, a worldwide pool of talent, and foreigners as faces of the league. On the other hand we’re seeing key rules of the game bending and breaking and player health buckling under the demands of an 82-game season. What value, exactly, could the In-Season Tournament bring to the NBA?

More Glory For More Teams and Players

In the past decade, NBA fan culture has come to be defined by a number of compulsive beliefs and talking points through which all player and team accomplishments are viewed: an overemphasis on championships a.k.a ring culture, the ambiguity of the MVP award, and the growing impact of player health issues spawning several hot topics (i.e. ethics of load management, validity of team and player achievements).

The NBA In-Season Tournament could address each of these issues.

Ending “Ring Culture”

Chris Paul CP0 meme ring chasing
The In-Season Tournament may alleviate some of the pressure fans place on players to win rings

The 2022-23 NBA Season was likely a primer for the league’s near future: less top-heavy with many good teams capable of getting hot at the right time.

There is only one NBA Championship. As franchises and players make increasingly huge moves to win it each season, all contending teams that don’t win the title in a given season are viewed as significantly less accomplished. For perspective, an English Premier League football club can finish 4th in their league — comparable to an NBA team losing the Conference Finals — but win the FA Cup, England’s biggest in-season tournament, or a continental tournament such as the Europa League or the UEFA Champions League, the biggest club title of them all.

Given other chances to win a title, a greater proportion of English football clubs (and European ones broadly) can be viewed as having successful seasons, meaning more than just the league winners are considered attractive by fans, sponsors, and high-level talent looking to play elsewhere. Everyone knows who the top dog is, but several other teams per season — not even the top four finishers, necessarily — can walk around with inflated chests, passionate fans, and a lively flow of money and talent.

Less Toxic MVP Debates

With the smaller in-season competition, players and teams will be given another set of chances to be recognized and awarded for high-level stretches of play. More standout moments during an NBA season will be given some tangible value. Versions of the playoff MVP awards and titles for leaders in scoring, rebounds, steals, and assists could help other elite players get shine time they wouldn’t get if their team ends up missing the playoffs or getting bounced early.

Imagine Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Damian Lillard, players who finished top-5 in scoring last year but didn’t start in the All-Star Game, leading the In-Season Tournament in scoring. Imagine Jamal Murray, who has never been an All-Star but is widely considered a star, winning the In-Season Tournament MVP award. Even if players who dominate the tourney don’t win more coveted regular season awards, these chances to put the league on notice can result in fewer elite players being overlooked due to a lack of traditional accolades.

As for fans, seeing their favorite players receive these other forms of recognition might take some of the toxicity and confusion out of debates about regular season honors like All-NBA teams and the ever-contentious MVP award.

Given an official, high-stakes platform early in the season to be seen playing at their best, more elite players and teams can avoid midseason injuries and overcome the NBA’s big-market bias to get their rightful recognition. Fewer players and teams would be talked about as All-Star or MVP snubs by disgruntled supporters and commentators.

Get Em While They’re Hot (Healthy)

Early regular season games with raised stakes will be a chance for good NBA teams with durability issues to show out before its most important players eventually fall victim to the marathon regular season and dense playoff schedule.

Maybe Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in the 2017 WCF against the Warriors wouldn’t be so contentious if the Rockets managed to win some in-season competition that year. Maybe, just maybe, more fans would appreciate the Warriors poise and durability in their WCF victory and be at peace knowing a fully-healthy Rockets team was the best team that year. (Ahh, the wondrous world of “What if … ?”)

If winning the In-Season Tournament was well rewarded, perhaps players known for being injury-prone could go all out earlier in the season and treat fans to their full capabilities in entertaining high-stakes games. Perhaps health safety measures later in the year wouldn’t be so annoying if fans were already given the best those players had to offer.

Young Guys Getting A Chance

When a big English football team like Liverpool plays in the early rounds of the FA Cup, they’re often playing weaker teams that don’t require their full-strength rosters to compete. This gives substitutes and reserve players a chance to impress in meaningful games without risking all the team’s ambitions for the season. If the club continues to win, they start fielding stronger rosters and taking the tournament more seriously.

Rookies and promising youngsters in the NBA have never had more attention and bigger fanbases. Thanks to social media and an explosive evolution in offensive play, look no further than the excitement around this year’s Summer League to understand the potential of the NBA’s Gen Z talent getting more minutes via a knockout tournament.

Seeing what players like Julian Champagnie, Lester Quiñones, and Deni Avdija could do with 30+ minutes in a meaningful small sample size could add healthy competition within their respective teams, give teams new chances to increase the market value of their players, and give fans more exposure to top talent that wouldn’t get as much time in the regular season.

Spurs' Julian Champagnie going toward the basket in a 2023 Summer League game against the Charlotte Hornets
Through the California Classic and first Summer League game, Spurs’ Julian Champagnie is averaging nearly 30 points a game in preseason play

More Engaged Viewers

With veteran championship-contending teams like the Warriors, Heat, and Lakers pacing themselves throughout the regular season, NBA fans and analysts find themselves itching to give meaning to nearly meaningless results. Regular season showdowns between the league’s best teams have been plagued by injuries to star players in recent years and the postseason is far away enough for regular season results to be disregarded.

Even as it fights to be taken seriously, the In-Season Tournament could be a dose of true competition that fans would take seriously if the players take it seriously. With such a long season full of forgettable games, on-the-bubble teams and players with chips on their shoulders would likely revel at the chance to go all out and win something during the regular season. With a structure of group play followed by a series of knockout rounds, the In-Season Tournament could be an adrenaline injection that adds fireworks to the long race and intensifies anticipation for the playoffs.

A more engaged audience could also help the NBA make the most of the In-Season tournament commercially. A tournament means another set of advertising and sponsorship opportunities that bring in money and make more NBA players marketable beyond the select few who win the league’s several big awards.

More Creative Team Tactics

In any team sport, styles of play in win-now scenarios tend to be more daring and inventive than regular season strategies. This is especially true in knockout tournaments where top teams don’t have the luxury of eventually overwhelming their opponents with more talent.

The dire need to play your best right now makes for more interesting duels of the mind where tactics that would not work over the course of a season or in a 7-game series could work in a winner-take-all game.

A great example is the annual UEFA Champions League Final, a match where two of Europe’s best football teams play for continental and, effectively, global supremacy. Even a team with as strong of an identity as this year’s champions Manchester City made important changes to their formation, style, and use of personnel in the UCL Final against Inter Milan.

Man City UCL tactics versus Inter Milan 2023 3-4-3 formation with John Stones playing the number 8 role
Coaches Voice explains this image and more 2023 UCL Final tactics

In the NBA, this could be as simple as coaches leaving their best players in for the entire fourth quarter instead of preserving them for future games. It could be as interesting as a team crafting extreme defensive lineups to protect big leads late in the game with counters such as three-guard or four-shooter lineups.

Everything That Could Suck About The In-Season Tournament

The possible downsides don’t require as much imagination as the potential benefits of the In-Season Tournament.

  • Distraction from the “real” competition and awards
  • Teams don’t take it seriously
  • Adds to toxic fan culture by complicating the value of different player and team accomplishments


Plenty of NBA supporters across the Internet are loud skeptics of the In-Season Tournament. But since it is inevitable and potentially not awful in practice, perhaps the imagined shifts in NBA culture listed above should be long-term goals for the league’s participants and supporters starting this season.

UPDATE 7/8/2023: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the In-Season Tournament would add more games to the NBA regular season schedule. Also edited to include information from the NBA’s official announcement of the tournament July 8, 2023


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