Someone asked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich this week about the chances the Spurs and rookie Victor Wembanyama have of winning the NBA Finals this year.
Popovich politely laughed. “Talking about the Spurs and the finals is premature,” he said.
But there is another trophy the Spurs — and every other team in the league — have a chance at winning. The NBA’s In-Season Tournament starts Friday, after years of planning by Commissioner Adam Silver to have a second trophy for teams to compete for during the season. He’s likened it to what happens in global soccer and thinks having something besides the end-of-season title will heighten interest.
“It’s exciting for everybody,” Popovich said. “You have to understand: all these guys are very competitive. It doesn’t matter what team. They’ve been competitive all their lives to reach this level of basketball. If you put something out there like this, it just adds to that competitiveness and really signals what might happen toward the end of the season.”
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Every Tuesday and Friday in November (except for this coming Tuesday, when there are no games to commemorate Election Day) has been designated as a tournament night. All games on the schedule those nights are tournament games.
There are six five-team groups; teams play the other four teams in their group once. The six group winners make the quarterfinals, as will a pair of wild-card teams — the two best second-place finishers from the groups.
Quarterfinal games are Dec. 4 and 5 at higher seeds; the semifinals are Dec. 7 in Las Vegas and the title game is Dec. 9 in Las Vegas.
There are 14 teams that will begin play Friday and 13 teams will get their first tournament games in on Nov. 10. Orlando and Atlanta won’t start their tournament schedules until Nov. 14, and Toronto doesn’t make its tournament debut until Nov. 17.
The 22 teams that don’t make the quarterfinals will play still-to-be-scheduled regular-season games on Dec. 6 and Dec. 8. Also on the Dec. 8 schedule: regular-season games between the teams that lose quarterfinal games.
East Group A — Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Indiana and Detroit.
East Group B — Milwaukee, New York, Miami, Washington and Charlotte.
East Group C — Boston, Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago and Orlando.
West Group A — Memphis, Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah and Portland.
West Group B — Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans, Dallas and Houston.
West Group C — Sacramento, Golden State, Minnesota, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
There are many reasons, but ratings are very high on the list. The new courts are designed to catch the eye of channel-flippers and make them take notice (with hopes they stop to watch the games), and it’s no coincidence that this tournament will happen before Christmas — traditionally when more people start watching the NBA. Anything to bring more eyeballs in November and early December is a plus.
There’s a cash incentive, $500,000 per player on the winning team and smaller prizes ($50,000 to $200,000 per player) for the other teams that make the quarterfinals and semifinals. That works out to a total prize pool of about $18 million.
And it should put a little extra meaning on early season games.
“I think they’ve embraced the ideal of playing for something in the middle of the season,” Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I think it’s good for our game, which I’m always excited about. … You like being the best at what you do. It’s an opportunity to be the best at something, let’s give it a go.”
Also at stake: The NBA Cup. Fans will see images of the new trophy splashed on the courts throughout the tournament. There will be an MVP and an All-Tournament team as well.
DO THE GAMES COUNT?
Yes, except the championship game. Every game in the tournament counts as one of the 82 regular-season games that all teams will play this season.
The reason the championship game doesn’t count is that the teams in that matchup will end up playing 83 games — and it doesn’t make sense, standings-wise, to have two teams playing one more game than the other 28 clubs.
Teams got 80-game schedules over the summer. Games 81 and 82 will either be those crossover games on Dec. 6 and 8, or the quarterfinals and semifinals.
WHAT ABOUT THESE COURTS?
Every team will have a different, newly painted home court for this tournament — primarily a solid color, with a stripe down the center of the floor and images of the NBA Cup at both midcourt and in the foul lanes.
It will be especially different in Boston, where parquet will be temporarily put away.
In 1946, when then-Celtics owner Walter Brown wanted a court for his new team, only scraps of wood were available because of shortages that followed World War II. So, the parquet-style court was utilized and became a permanent fixture for the team when it moved full-time into Boston Garden in 1952.
But for games in Boston during this tournament, no parquet.
WHAT DO THE ODDS SAY?
Think of the tournament this way: a four-game regular season before the playoffs. With only four games to decide who moves on from each group, expect surprises. A two-game losing streak in the tournament might be tough to overcome.
Boston is the favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, at 8-1. Milwaukee and Denver have 8.5-1 odds, while the Lakers and Golden State are 12-1.