It sounds like a broken record, but it feels even more true today: A midseason tournament seems more likely than ever.
“We are making progress,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told Yahoo Sports last week. “All of those discussions are positive. There’s a lot of stakeholders, logistics that would have to be taken care of, but I feel we are taking all the right steps, all the right feedback.”
Tatum added, perhaps most poignantly, that there’s “a lot of momentum” toward adding a midseason tournament — which would likely occur before Christmas, the current unofficial start to the NBA season.
The logistics Tatum is referring to — shortening the season from 82 games, getting it agreed to with the players’ union — hasn’t been determined. But it has been a frequent enough topic on the calls general managers are having with the league office.
“There are a few old-school types who might fight against it, but it feels like it’ll be in place by the next TV deal,” a general manager told Yahoo Sports.
Having some level of midseason tournament is a carrot the league will hold up in its current TV negotiations. The existing deal expires after the 2023-24 season, with the traditional rights holders and streaming networks all expected to make bids on carrying coverage into that next wave.
Like most recent seasons, NBA headliners have missed chunks of games due to injury and injury management. It’s become more in focus in recent years, and adding a midseason tournament to it feels a bit counterintuitive to the goals of both making the regular season feel eventful and having the marquee players on the floor as much as possible.
Tatum doesn’t believe the ideals conflict.
“One of the reasons that we want to create the in-season tournament is for the fans, for the players, so creating more opportunities for players to compete in the middle of a season to win something,” he said. “And in addition to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, our players, they want to compete, they want to win. I mean, they grew up competing, and they grew up playing, you know, for the love of the game and to be the best in the highest level.”
Tatum believes an NCAA tournament-style format will appeal to fans and the likely financial incentive will appeal to the players. As great as the salaries are for the upper crust, around a third of its players earn more than $10 million, according to ESPN’s database.
“My hope, and I’m optimistic, that by creating the right competition by creating the right incentives that our players will be there, they want to be out there and they want to compete,” Tatum said.
So if there’s, say, a $1 million bonus per player on the line, it would mean a lot more than the average fan would think.
“Adam [Silver] has had a great relationship with the players, and this could be his legacy, in a different way than David Stern,” a general manager told Yahoo Sports. “Leveraging that relationship with the players for this tournament, especially while knowing the PA has to account for more than just the stars but the average player, too, will get this pushed through.”
Goodwill's NBA All-Star Game starters
The All-Star starter ballots are due Saturday at midnight, with the media accounting for 25% of the equation. The fans have the biggest stake, of course, with 50% and the players’ vote accounts for the remaining 25%.
Here’s this media member’s ballot:
East frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee; Jayson Tatum, Boston; Kevin Durant, Brooklyn
Someone had to be left out and it’ll be someone really great being second-best, two-time MVP runner-up Joel Embiid. And it’s less about his performance (because the 76ers are quietly surging) than it is availability. Durant is out now with a knee injury, but he was a workhorse until it, carrying the Nets from the abyss to the doorstep of the East penthouse, playing his most complete basketball since his first two years at Golden State. Antetokounmpo is still the game’s most irresistible force, even as the Bucks have struggled a bit without Khris Middleton. And Tatum is a lock. He finds ways to grind good games out of bad nights in ways he hadn’t until now, evidenced by the Celtics leading the East and their comeback win over the champion Warriors Thursday night.
East backcourt: Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland; Jaylen Brown, Boston
Kyrie Irving deserves strong consideration, especially after how he played in the return from his team-imposed exile earlier in the season. He’s averaged around 25-5-5 since Nov. 20, a secondary key to the Nets’ reemergence behind Durant’s greatness. But the nods go to Mitchell and Brown. Mitchell has given the Cavs veteran stability and has them as a legit threat to be more than a party crasher come spring. He’s more than just a scorer, but he’s playing as efficiently as anyone in his position, with 48-40-87 splits while averaging 28.4 points a night — buoyed by that 71-point masterpiece against Chicago on Jan. 2. Brown has nestled nicely into a dangerous two-way swingman behind Tatum, no longer battling for the top spot. The Celtics are the league’s best because of Tatum, for sure, but Brown’s 27 points and seven rebounds aren’t too far behind.
West frontcourt: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Nikola Jokic, Denver; Lauri Markkanen, Utah
Do we really need an explainer? Perhaps it would’ve been more difficult if Zion Williamson played more than 26 games, or if Anthony Davis didn’t freakily sprain his ankle in mid-air, but it’s quite simple. James is performing statistically to his usual levels, as he’s chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring mark. The Lakers aren’t going anywhere, but that only plays so much here. Jokic is a two-time MVP finally performing on a contender, aiming for Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain territory for three straight. He might average a triple-double for the season (9.9 assists) and it’ll actually mean something! Markkanen is the surprise, shaking off the early disappointment from Chicago, rediscovering himself in Cleveland and now turning into a downright menace in Salt Lake City. He’s a touch away from 50-40-90 land and makes posters of anyone waiting for him at the rim. A mere lock for Most Improved Player, no?
West backcourt: Luka Doncic, Dallas; Ja Morant, Memphis
Stephen Curry is the reigning king, and respect must be paid. Even with the Warriors’ record, he’s performing like a man carrying a team to the playoffs, kicking and screaming. He’s played a handful of games fewer than Morant, who’s leading Memphis to within earshot of the best record in the West. That has to count for something. Morant is learning, little by little, the delicate balance of exerting his force onto a game and being a willing facilitator: pushing the pace or running the offense. It’s a sight to see. Doncic has more responsibility on his shoulders than pretty much anyone else in the league. And he’s delivering. It feels impossible to keep up this usage, but he’s in shape and averaging (nearly) 34-9-9. To note, this feels like the age of souped-up stats, but that production is still pretty damn remarkable. He’s must-see TV every night, and if you blink on a pump-fake or blink by turning to another channel on NBA League Pass, you’ll miss something special — or wind up on the next mixtape. Leaving Curry off doesn’t feel great, and minds can change in the next 36 hours.