Sunday, July 21, 2024

NBA In-Season Tournament has been worth the effort, even as some insiders remain skeptical

The NBA’s group stage portion of its inaugural In-Season Tournament is in the books, and my quick verdict on the event is this: So far, so good and relatively interesting.

The general view around the NBA, when people are talking candidly under the freedom of anonymity for fear of angering Adam Silver by criticizing his pet project: Some “meh,” some mild buy-in, and some maybe-we’ll-buy-into-it-later cautious optimism.

But after 60 games, some headache-inducing courts, and a world of skepticism — and, yes, ample exciting play and a fun final night to close the group stage — we’ve narrowed the list of would-be winners of the inaugural NBA Cup from 30 teams to eight.

The Pacers, Bucks and Celtics won their groups in the East, while the Lakers, Kings and Pelicans got it done in the West. The Knicks and Suns locked up the two wild cards. It was a riveting final night, particularly Sacramento’s comeback against Golden State to book a ticket forward.

For me, at least, the idea of the In-Season Tournament always held the promise and potential of those kinds of moments. The idea is innovative, it’s interesting, and while it’ll take awhile for the event to win over enough fans and players to matter, it seems well worth the attempt. 

But there’s still deep pockets of skepticism from those actually competing in the competition. 

“The media is pumping it,” one executive said. “Seems like some teams are into it. Our guys do not seem to be.”

That reflects the primary criticism across the game when discussing this thing: That many players simply do not — at least right now, today — give a you-know-what for a competition they don’t entirely understand nor, mostly, yet care about.

“If you want to make this real, you need to make it about winning more than money,” said another executive, whose team will likely make the playoffs this season but did not advance in the tournament. “Players will never change. They’ll care in the playoffs. But teams can change, and you might be able to get them to buy in so that it impacts who you rest, who you give minutes to, what games you prioritize. That’s how you make change. Players, they just know it’s another night in another city on another stupid f—ing court.”

Not that every person across the league is against the idea of the NBA Cup. One GM said, in effect, Why the hell not try it? “Might as well try it,” he said. “I’m glad the league office is trying to be innovative and trying to give us more to play for. Will it work? I don’t know. But I like the idea.”

One former player also thought there was, on the current players’ side, an openness to in-season competition winning them over. “It depends on who you ask, but I get the sense that players have bought into it,” he said. “Similar to play-in games, [there was] speculation at first, but now it’s money.”

Whatever the views out there, there’s an understanding the league is committed to this, and that means the chances for meaningful adjustments down the road, along with the invaluable impact the passage of time can have in winning people over, means what wrapped Tuesday night is just the beginning of this experiment.

One NBA league source, not wanting to offend the commissioner, also pointed out despite his own skepticism that there are side goals here even beyond everyone loving the idea right now. 

“Remember, it’s building the market in Vegas and the fan base there and getting T-Mobile ready for the NBA,” he said. “That’s a big part of it.”

And that part of it — the final three In-Season Tournament games will be in Las Vegas next week — is very close. Perhaps the glitz of Sin City, the energy of elimination games, and the pride that professional players always have will be enough to win over a big chunk of skeptics a little over a week from now.

The handwriting on the Warriors‘ wall

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Draymond Green antics. Here’s another bit of fodder for what’s been going on with the Warriors legend, from the Rudy Gobert chokehold to his general edginess to his return Tuesday night following his five-game suspension.

How about the simple idea that Green knows this dynasty he helped build is over. That Rome has already fallen. That the Warriors, as true competitors, have already entered the past tense, even if we need some more time to see it clearly. 

Maybe, just maybe, Green is raging against the dying of this team’s light — a frustrated, aging great who knows what is looming.

Maybe Green, and his teammates, sense all these things, and the strange malaise around them this year is simply a part of that realization.

Even before last night, when the Warriors blew a 24-point lead against the Kings while also surrendering the cushion they’d built to also advance in the In-Season Tournament, I kept going back to a conversation I had before the season started with an NBA executive. It’s someone with a close connection to the Warriors, and his unequivocal belief the Warriors’ window had already closed.

Maybe he was right. Maybe, in lashing out at Gobert, costing his team a handful of games in which he should have been playing, drenching his team with unneeded drama, and generally seeing his candor transition from sagacious-truth-teller to more guy-who-knows-it’s-over, Green has simply been dealing with his grief for what the Warriors used to be.

Maybe he’s processing the loss and sadness the way a lot of us do: By being pretty damn put out, and then lashing out.

Even Klay Thompson got into the act this week, when he sniped at the well-regarded Tim Kawakami from The Athletic for what seemed like a pretty innocuous question about Steve Kerr having patience with his struggling stars, including Thompson.

“What, do you want him to bench me?” Klay said with some bite. “Or bench Wigs?”

There’s more to that exchange, and it’s worth reading about. It was, to say the least, eye-brow raising from the normally sanguine Thompson.

But the point is the same: The Warriors season has started off sub-optimally, Steph Curry’s co-stars have seen their light dim significantly, and maybe, just maybe, the antics and annoyances stemming from the Bay have less to do with a Minnesota center or a reporter’s difficult question and more to do with a growing sense amongst the Warriors themselves that their time is already over.

What’s behind Mark Cuban’s moves?

Speaking of their time being over, Mark Cuban, according to a report by The Athletic on Tuesday, will sell a majority stake of the Dallas Mavericks while keeping control of basketball operations and an undisclosed share of the team.

Early reaction was shocked, skeptical and curious. How, exactly, do you sell the majority stake of an NBA team to someone else and ensure control of basketball ops? 

But it’s also worth wondering if, perhaps, this move — and Cuban’s also-recent decision to leave Shark Tank — is more about running for president than anything else.

That was certainly voiced by several around the NBA, including a few who had talked to Cuban over the past week and had no idea this news was on the way.

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