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The NBA In-Season Tournament: Learning from in-season tournament’s past

The sports world has seen its fair share of change over the past decade.

The NCAA first allowed athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness with an interim policy in 2021. The MLB made a handful of changes starting in the 2023 season, including adding a pitch clock and increasing the size of bases from 15 to 18 inches. The NBA saw a few changes of its own through its newest Collective Bargaining Agreement. The seven-year CBA added two new “apron” levels above its luxury tax line and a third two-way spot for teams across the league, according to an April article from ESPN.

“The new CBA introduces two ‘apron’ levels above the luxury tax line, where teams have to deal with not only harsher luxury tax penalties but also restrictions on what they can do with their rosters,” the article read. “For 2023-24, the salary cap is projected to be $134 million, and the luxury tax line is set to be $162 million.

“The first apron is set at $7 million above the luxury tax level in each season of the CBA (so $169 million for 2023-24) and the second apron is set at $17.5 million above the tax threshold (or $179.5 million). In future seasons, all of those numbers will rise at the same rate.”

The NBA announced its inaugural in-season tournament during the 2023 offseason. NBA teams were split up into six groups of five, each of whom will play through four designated “group play” games before eight teams move on to the elimination rounds. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the idea of the tournament was “to create new games of consequences during the regular season,” according to an April article from The Athletic.

“Taking a page from European soccer where they play for multiple cups throughout the season,” Silver said, via The Athletic. “We think taking nothing away from the Larry O’Brien trophy, and the ultimate goal of winning a championship, that you can create another competition within the season that becomes meaningful. And there’s a recognition that new traditions are not built overnight.

“Just as the Play-In (Tournament) has had significant value, I think this Cup tournament will as well.”

What can the NBA learn from the in-season tournament runs of the past?

Commissioner’s Cup

An in-season tournament is nothing new to the sports world.

The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup, the WNBA’s in-season tournament, was initially set to begin in 2020. Its inaugural year was moved to 2021 after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams compete for a $500,000 prize pool and “an additional pool of money for charitable and civic organizations,” according to

The Seattle Storm won the league’s first Commissioner’s Cup championship behind 17 points from now-New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart and 16 from guard Jewell Loyd. The Liberty defeated the Las Vegas Aces during this year’s Cup Championship, taking an 82-63 victory over Las Vegas as five Liberty players scored in double-figures. Forward Jonquel Jones, who New York acquired in a three-team trade with the Connecticut Sun and Dallas Wings, won the Cup’s MVP after notching a 16-point, 15-rebound double-double in the victory at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

“Overseas, they’ve been doing this a long time,” Hammon said of in-season cup competitions for men’s and women’s leagues, via ESPN women’s college and pro basketball writer M.A. Voepel. “Most people have bonuses written into their contracts overseas for those games.

“I love that the players get an extra chunk of money, and especially in our league, that’s a big deal. In the men’s league … what incentivizes these guys to go out and play? They make a lot of money; that’s already there. So how are you going to make it that much more interesting? I’ll be curious to see how it plays out.”

MLS: U.S. Open Cup

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a single-game elimination tournament that consists of professional and amateur teams. The competition is the second-oldest continually-operating cup competition in the world behind the Irish Cup, according to The Cup’s website.

Orlando City SC took the U.S. Open crown in 2022, netting the squad a $300,000 prize and a berth in the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League. Orlando claimed a 3-0 victory over Sacramento Republic FC, a USL Championship squad first founded in 2012. Orlando City midfielder Facundo Torres scored a high-arcing chip shot off of a pass from forward Benji Michel in the 75th minute and a penalty a few minutes later. Michel hit a shot of his own in the 96th minute.

“We came in with a four-game winning streak [in MLS] … this cup gives us some motivation to continue fighting in the league,” Torres said, via ESPN Soccer Journalist Cesar Hernandez.

The Open Cup may still need extra time for growth before reaching its full potential, as highlighted USSF chief commercial officer David Wright in May.

“We understand that the Open Cup is not where we all want it to be, and we’re committed to getting there,” Wright said, via ESPN U.S. soccer correspondent Jeff Carlisle. “It also takes resources and something that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about.

“I think it is a natural opportunity to take a step back now, particularly that we’ve got renewed interest from media partners, which I think is a critical component to this. But you’re right to call out. There’s other areas of the property that we’ve got to continue to hone in and refine as we think to the future.”

The NBA’s In-Season Tournament

As sports and leagues across the nation evolve, so must the NBA.

Just as it has for the WNBA, the NBA’s in-season tournament could add extra meaning to the regular season. It will give players and coaching staff alike more time to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as the NBA’s regular season goes on. Teams will also have the opportunity to win from a prize pool that will be allocated to the NBA players on the teams that participate in the Knockout Rounds, according to

It will take time for the league to fully perfect the tournament after its first run during the 2023-24 season. No change can be perfect on its first run, but if the NBA looks to the WNBA and MLS, it can find ways to expand upon the foundation provided by its American counterparts.

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