After weeks of debate, and dissent from league figures such as LeBron James and Mark Cuban, the NBA's first annual play-in tournament registered an objective smash hit.
There were 5.62 million viewers who tuned in for Wednesday's Warriors-Lakers matchup, the most-watched ESPN game since the network aired the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Even that evening's undercard, Spurs-Grizzlies, generated 2.2 million viewers on average, good for the third-most-watched ESPN game of this season.
Dating back to 2016, Commissioner Adam Silver has communicated a strong interest in retooling the NBA calendar to revitalize the league's business model. It appears to be no coincidence G League officials are progressing toward finalizing an in-season tournament for the 2021-22 regular season, sources said, just as the WNBA has instituted its own Commissioner's Cup for this season.
"I love that the NBA is continuing to evolve and be creative so that it's popular among a new generation of watchers," one general manager told Bleacher Report.
An in-season tournament might arrive in the NBA sooner than many expect. The league's highly rated play-in tournament was instituted only after one successful postseason shake-up in the Orlando bubble last summer, just as the inventive coach's challenge entered the NBA following just one full G League season and an additional trial run at the Las Vegas Summer League. Worth noting, the NBA did already propose an in-season tournament to teams for the 2021-22 season back in December 2019.
It appears next season's G League tournament will be an enhanced version of the format used in 2019, when teams participating in the minor league's annual Showcase competed in a tournament for a $100,000 grand prize. This new iteration would feature something similar to the concept the NBA proposed to teams in December 2019: G League clubs would all play 12 or 14 opening games, and the top four teams from that round robin would then appear in a prize-money tournament at the G League Showcase. The other teams would play through the annual event as usual.
From there, each team would go back to its market, and the G League would commence with a typical regular-season format featuring 36 games to determine playoff seeding for the postseason as normal, sources said. However, unlike the proposal the NBA sent teams two years ago that counted all games played, this G League calendar would function as a first and second season, sources said, where the teams' records all reset at 0-0 before the final 36-game sprint.
In the WNBA this season, each team has 10 Commissioner's Cup games on its schedule before the league's midseason break for the Olympics. When play resumes following the Olympic break, the East's top team in the cup standings will battle the best team from the West for a $500,000 prize.
That, of course, will mark a significant bonus for players on the winning team. At minimum, they'll earn $30,000 each—a notable sum considering the majority of the WNBA's players are on rookie-scale contracts that pay between $58,710 and $70,040. The Commissioner's Cup MVP will also receive an additional $5,000.
Such a monetary incentive appears to be one of the biggest hurdles in ever finalizing a midseason or start-of-the-season tournament at the NBA level, where even average salaries are significantly higher. Any addition to the league calendar would require collective bargaining with the National Basketball Players Association.
The G League is still determining how to reward the 2021-22 tournament winner, which will also be labeled as some type of "Cup," sources said. There have been discussions about awarding the Cup's champion more of a lump sum that the organization can divvy up among its players, coaches and executives as it chooses.
In Europe, where domestic league cups have a storied history, the reward for claiming that first title is often baked into players' contracts—usually a bonus of about 5 percent of their season salary, sources said. But that prize netted upward of $75,000 for premier stars making around $1.5 million.
A 5 percent bonus in the NBA, where the average player made roughly $10 million this 2020-21 season, would cost the league a pretty penny. A cleaner $1 million per player, plus $1.5 million for the coaching staff, was the premise in the NBA's 2019 proposal, but would that be enough to stir superstars like James or Chris Paul, who earn salaries around $40 million?
The league office has considered various additional incentives for NBA teams to compete in this hypothetical tournament since the 2014-15 season, sources said. The competition, by all accounts, would likely be called the David Stern Cup, in honor of the league's former commissioner who died in January 2020.
Options have ranged from awarding additional pingpong balls in the draft lottery, a supplemental first-round draft pick, guaranteed home-court advantage in the opening round of the real playoffs—and maybe even all the way through the Finals—or awarding that team the option to pick its first-round opponent in the postseason, sources told B/R. The Stern Cup winner could even potentially gain an extra $3 million in salary-cap space or some type of additional cap exception, bonus amnesty or stretch provision.
Of course, the other primary hurdle the NBA has to clear is reckoning with a drastic change to the fabric of the league.
"It's part of the European structure. They've done that for so long, they put the Cup flags up in the arena and that means something. Are we gonna do that here?" the general manager wondered. "It'll be interesting to see how players and coaches view that. Because I think ultimately getting to the playoffs is more important."
"It's just like trying to teach an old dog new tricks," one team scout said. "I think this is a little more extreme than the other ideas."
Part of the calculus behind an in-season tournament is infusing more excitement into the league's regular season, which, in recent years, has been diminished by load management and other resting protocols with a single-minded focus on the playoffs. All the incentives listed above may not dissuade someone like Kawhi Leonard away from his conservative resting schedule.
"I don't think [the Cup's] gonna supersede winning the title at the end of the day," the general manager said. "They're finding places to find rest in the season: 'I might just rest while everyone else is slugging it out over these games.' Who knows what these guys' mindsets are? They're obviously thinking about this differently than everybody else."
The NBA's 2019 proposal centered on teams playing group stages within their own divisions, four home games and four away games, which could reinvigorate divisional rivalries. Maybe those battles between fabled rivals could add exciting new chapters to an already-rich history like Celtics-Sixers or the Clippers and Lakers' crosstown competition. A few years of Ja Morant's Grizzlies running into Zion Williamson's Pelicans in the Southwest could theoretically breed a marquee moment for the NBA.
"I'd love it as a young team that's striving for some kind of excitement and more valuable games," an assistant general manager told B/R.
Either way, the success of the play-in tournament appears to be only the beginning of the NBA tinkering with its calendar and a precursor for midseason iterations to come. This is a league office that seems determined to turn over every stone in search of optimizing its product. Innovations such as the G League bubble's "one free throw" rule, which saved an average of 13 minutes of real time from games, have garnered enthusiasm in league circles as well.
Should the affiliate's 2021 midseason affair and the WNBA's Commissioner's Cup—which will air nine games with new media partner Amazon Prime Video—be met with a similar response to the NBA's battle for the seventh and eighth seeds, a Stern Cup could very well be coming to an arena near you quite soon.