“Honestly, you’d have to educate me, because I haven’t spent one single second thinking about the format,” Kuzma said this week.
It’s hard to fault Kuzma for that. As was the case when the NBA debuted the play-in tournament for the 2020-21 campaign, the new in-season tournament requires a bit of explanation. The idea is modeled after tournaments such as the FA Cup in English soccer and designed to get people paying attention to regular season games that (a) get lost in a crowded fall sports landscape and (b) don’t draw eyes because they’re played near the beginning of a season that stretches until June.
“A lot of times, people aren’t really watching until after the all-star break,” Kuzma said. “It’s a different brand of basketball in the second half of the season.”
To fix the problem, the NBA started by drawing each of its 30 teams into six groups, three for the Eastern Conference and three for the Western Conference. Each team plays one game against each of the other four teams in its group during the group stage in November. The winner of each group and the highest-finishing team from each conference that did not win a group advance to the quarterfinals Dec. 4 and 5.
The Wizards’ group-stage games will take place over the next four Fridays. They’ve got the Heat, then the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 10, the New York Knicks on Nov. 17 and the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 24.
The winners of the quarterfinal round advance to the semifinals Dec. 7 in Las Vegas, with the championship game set for Dec. 9. Each game of the tournament, except for the championship game, also counts toward the regular season standings.
The prize at the end of all of this is called the NBA Cup (both the trophy and the tournament itself are plainly titled so that sponsors can come in and purchase the naming rights at a later date). But the real incentive, aside from pride, of course, is straight cash — a $500,000 payout for each player on the winning team, $200,000 for players on the second-place team, $100,000 for players on teams that lose in the semifinals and $50,000 for players on teams that lose in the quarterfinals. Coaches also receive a cash reward — it is Vegas, after all.
“It’s a bonus, definitely a bonus,” Wizards point guard Tyus Jones said. “You’re going to try to win the games anyway, so might as well win some money.”
The Wizards count themselves as fans of the new wrinkle for myriad reasons. Kuzma is all for the injection of competitiveness in the early part of the season and said the tournament is a creative way to account for the rising influence of international players in the league. He also mentioned the opportunity to increase ratings in the early half of the year.
Viewers will be able to tell they’re watching in-season tournament games the minute they tune into a broadcast thanks to bold alternate court designs the NBA revealed this week. Each team will play on hardwood painted to match its “City Edition” jersey, meaning the Capital One Arena floor will be gray and teal Nov. 10 and Nov. 17.
Coach Wes Unseld Jr. and third-year guard Corey Kispert predicted the competition will hold value for both players and fan bases around the league beyond its eye-catching look. The tournament might be especially attractive among organizations such as the Wizards, who aren’t necessarily contending for a spot in the playoffs in the spring but have the chance to fight for a different title and a monetary prize.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Unseld said. “ … To have an opportunity to compete for something midseason is unique. You see how it plays out in other leagues around the world. It does drum up excitement, galvanizes the fan base a little bit. Players seem to dive into it.”
Kispert’s just happy to have something new to break up the slow grind of the fall and winter months.
“I like it. I mean, for us players, in November, December and January, it’s easy to let the games get kind of monotonous, and it starts to blend together,” he said. “So it adds a little bit of juice to some games that normally wouldn’t have it.”