Another December, another NBA season — except this time, it’s different. This time, there’s something to talk about other than load management and trade rumors. This time, we don’t have to wonder why the season is so long or debate the MVP a week into the season. No, this time, we have the newly implemented NBA In-Season Tournament.

To those not well-versed in professional basketball, here’s a general breakdown of how a typical NBA season is structured.. The regular season stretches from October to April, during which each of the league’s 30 teams play 82 games. Their win-loss records then dictate their positioning in the Playoffs, a high-stakes tournament among the best 16 teams all competing to become that year’s champions.

For the dedicated fan, there isn’t much of a problem with this format: an 82-game season for their favorite team is a joy to watch, not to mention the universal thrill of the playoff games. But for the casual fan, the regular season can be a bore starting at around the mid-way point. This hole should be filled in by the All-Star Weekend, with star studded events like the Slam Dunk contest, Three-point contest, and the All-Star game, but with the All-Star Weekend quickly waning in popularity, the need for a change has become increasingly clear.

Thus, the tournament is built to add intrigue during a normally boring part of the season where only die-hard fans watch their favorite teams (while, deep down, knowing that none of the games’ outcomes really matter until the spring). With this new implementation, however, more people than ever are tuning in across the whole spectrum of fandom engagement. 

This single elimination knockout-style tournament is a new addition to this NBA season that tipped off on Nov. 3 and will end on Dec. 9. Every game counts towards the standings for the regular season (minus the championship).

Just like March Madness, the thrill and excitement of single elimination basketball is building interest in the league as a whole. Also, the introduction of a point differential tiebreaker adds a layer of complexity and increases competition in seemingly-meaningless games. This is why the Celtics needed to beat the Bulls by a lot in their final game to make the Final 8 over the Magic, who had the same tournament record.

Personally, as a huge fan of the league, I have loved every minute of the action. The courts, jerseys, and competition have quickly turned these early season Tuesday and Friday nights into must-watch events. It’s provided an intensity to a normally dull time of the year where late season football dominates ESPN talk shows.

The courts and jerseys set tournament nights apart. Their thematic consistency and city individuality make the games special and bring in a wider audience to the games.

This tournament format is also a perfect place for coaches and organizations to experiment with their rosters and styles of play. Ever since the efficiency of the drive and kick three took the league by storm after the 2015 Warriors Title run, the association has been shifting towards a homogenous style of play. Centers were pushed aside for sharpshooting guards, until recently, when the punishingly efficient playstyles of Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounpo brought about a swift change. 

Now, to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, you need a seven-footer who can hold their own defensively against these overpowering centers. This leads into the next generation of players, including Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Chet Holmgren, Evan Mobley, and Victor Wembenyama, all a part of the big man resurgence. Even big guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Anthony Edwards, and Luka Doncic are using their length and size to control the pace of the game.

But while all the tall trees across the league battle in the post, the smaller guards find a way to make their impact known. Players like De’aaron Fox, Steph Curry, Jalen Brunson, Donnovan Mitchell, and Tyresse Maxey are using their speed, playmaking, and shooting to dominate the court. While they have some defensive deficiencies, their physicality and quickness makes them at least passable against the majority of their matchups.

This is where each team’s unique flair is most visible. Playing against the lanky Thunder with their efficient back court and strong defense on the wings complimented by Rookie of the Year candidate Chet Holmgren is very different than facing off against the Magic with their overwhelming frontcourt scoring duo of Franz and Paolo and defensively minded backcourt of Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony. 

Within this new format, eight teams have staked their claim at a chance for the NBA Cup. Each of them has their own unique playstyle that has set them apart so far and will aid in their success as they shift into the playoffs.

In the West, the Lakers and Suns have dominated the game with their star power. This includes Lakers’ veteran Lebron James (in his 21st season) and defensive player of the year candidate Anthony Davis. The Suns are led by the talents of growing playmaker and shooting guard Devin Booker and consistently stellar power forward Kevin Durant. However, their depth past the top five is questionable. 

The Kings, Bucks, and Knicks have all played well to this point, controlling the game with their consistent style of play.The Kings have star guard De’aaron Fox — who is on pace for another All-NBA season with his quick driving ability and efficient shooting and playmaking. The Bucks, may have the most dynamic duo in the NBA in Damian Lilliard and Giannis Antetokoumpo, and the Knicks, piloted by Jalen Brunson (an undersized guard with a gigantic positive impact on the roster), both are ready to make some noise in the East. 

Additionally, there’s the Pelicans, who have one of the deepest teams in the league with paint beast power forward Zion Williamson and lanky three-level scorer Brandon Ingram, and the Celtics, who have the best starting five in the NBA thus far and the best defensive backcourt in the league.

One team stands out above the rest in my eyes: the Indiana Pacers. I think that this tournament was built for a team like them, who on any given night could score over 150 points. Their young, energetic play style sets them apart and especially in a single elimination tournament, they are extremely difficult to game plan against. They may not fare well in a normal seven game playoff series, but in the race for the NBA cup, they have as good a chance as anyone. 

The Pacers’ All-Star guard Tyresse Halliburton has openly talked about how the tournament is an excellent opportunity to showcase to the league his abilities as a player. “The in-season tournament is probably the first time that I’m really competing to win a championship on the NBA level,” he said in an interview with ESPN. His competitive nature reflects the league consensus that the players care. They are so competitive that the chance to win anything brings out the best in them.

This is what the league has been searching for and lacking over the last decade. In the era of load management and player empowerment, November and December were months of empty stats, fake trades, and rest days as fans anxiously await the postseason. Now, we have another trophy to look forward to, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

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