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Chicago Sun Times
Chicago Sun-Times
16 Dec 2023

NextImg:NBA took WNBA’s In-Season Tournament concept and made it better

The ending of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament couldn’t have been written any better than if it had been pulled directly from Commissioner Adam Silver’s journal.

The face of the league, LeBron James, was named MVP. Anthony Davis stunned a sold-out Las Vegas crowd with a 40-point 20 rebound performance. Tyrese Haliburton’s break-out tournament run forced viewers into a new discussion, “not about legacies and the BS that comes with it, about basketball,” the All-Star said.

All of that followed weeks of competitive play on courts that had fans, analysts and media personalities in an uproar.

But let’s not forget that the NBA’s tournament was implemented three years after the WNBA began its own, the Commissioner’s Cup. So, let's compare notes.

The Commissioner’s Cup, like the IST, designates a number of games as tournament games, with the outcome impacting standings. For the WNBA, 10 games of the league’s 40-game season counted toward Cup standings. The two teams with the highest win percentage from each conference earned an automatic spot in the Cup final. The NBA’s two stages, group play followed by a knockout round, allowed for a more robust level of competition.

“It feels like every game being played has playoff vibes,” the Pacers’ Buddy Hield told reporters on the IST competition level.

That response, which was mirrored by players throughout the league and fans watching at home, is just one place the NBA has the WNBA beat. In the WNBA, players still haven't fully embraced the Commissioner’s Cup. Many have made comments that tournament games feel like any other regular season game.

Now, the WNBA is comprised of 12 teams compared to the 30 that make up the NBA. So, implementing a similar bracket-style knockout stage in the WNBA might not be as natural, but it could add another level of playoff energy that has been lacking from the tournament.

The Bucks’ Damian Lillard went on the Knuckleheads podcast and shared his thoughts on the NBA implementing specially designed IST courts, saying in part, “It doesn’t feel like just another night in the NBA.”

Love them or hate them — on social media, it appeared many fell in the latter portion — the NBA’s in-season tournament courts had everyone talking. The NBA’s goal with this newly implemented flagship event was to create a buzz that brings attention to the league at a time in the season when it’s lacking, bringing us to the next point of emphasis: marketing.

The specially designed courts were an obvious way to bring everyone's attention to the tournament, but beyond that, the NBA left no doubt in fans' minds about what was happening. The tournament was pushed almost to an exhausting degree, and in the end, it paid off, with the championship averaging 4.58 million viewers. It was the most watched non-Christmas game for the league in six years.

The WNBA had another record-breaking viewership year. The finals were the most watched in 20 years, averaging 728,000 viewers on ESPN platforms. The Commissioner’s Cup Final, though, was streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

There are kinks that need to be worked out by the NBA, starting with the tournament’s point differential rule, which nearly resulted in the Kings advancing off a loss to the Warriors on Nov. 28 had Steph Curry hit a three-point attempt at the buzzer.

Across the league, the rule proved problematic. Bulls coach Billy Donovan exchanged words with Celtics coach Joe Mazulla midgame over his tactic to foul Andre Drummond to enhance his team’s point differential. DeMar DeRozan was also vocal about having respect for the game when it comes to running up the score.

Meanwhile, the total WNBA Commissioner’s Cup prize pool is $500,000 while the winners of the IST earned that same amount individually.

The WNBA may have done it first, but the NBA — despite the wrinkles — did it better.