LAS VEGAS – The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) inaugural in-season tournament nears its climax in Las Vegas on Dec 7 (Dec 8 morning, Singapore time), with the world of basketball in near-unanimous agreement that the event has been a dazzling success.
Four years after it first emerged that the NBA was mulling the creation of a 30-team tournament played in tandem with the regular season, four teams will contest the semi-finals, hoping to nail down a place in the final on Dec 9.
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers face the New Orleans Pelicans in the Western Conference semi-final, while the Milwaukee Bucks face the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern side of the draw.
The Vegas finale marks the culmination of NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s desire to see basketball mirror European club football’s structure, where teams play in domestic and continental Cup competitions as well as league campaigns.
He had said the tournament was designed to “create new games of consequence during the regular season”, and in that regard the tournament has been an unqualified hit.
Viewership figures have surged for locally broadcast and nationally televised games, while attendances in November jumped to an average of 18,206 – the highest average on record for November according to the NBA.
“It gives that excitement and that different level of competition that you don’t usually get in December in an NBA season,” Milwaukee Bucks star Damian Lillard said on Dec 6.
“I think it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. A lot of teams who probably didn’t appreciate it in the first one or two in-season games are probably wishing like, man, we should have took this a little more serious.”
Lakers coach Darvin Ham agreed, saying the tournament had given a sense of jeopardy to a period of the NBA’s marathon 82-game regular season that is traditionally a snooze-fest.
“It’s been great,” he said. “Sometimes you tend to yawn – we don’t like to admit it, but you tend to yawn through certain NBA games, regular-season games at this point of the year.
“To have this infused into the season and you get a chance to see this high level of basketball played in December, I think it’s great for the fans, for everyone involved.”
The sense of competition has crucially won buy-in from the NBA’s players. Each player on the team that lifts the NBA Cup will receive a win bonus of US$500,000 (S$670,000), although Ham believes the purse could be bigger.
“If you want the players to play at an extremely high level, increase the purse,” he added.
In broad terms, however, the tournament has proven popular with players.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who celebrated his 29th birthday on Dec 6, is relishing his time in Vegas.
“I celebrated my birthday in Vegas,” he said during a press conference at Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
“That’s what I’m going to tell my kids one day. My 29th birthday was in Las Vegas. What were you doing out there, dad? Were you gambling and being in the gentlemen’s club? No, I was (preparing to play) a basketball game.”