Adam Silver, the commissioner for the NBA, got it right again. In perhaps his boldest attempt at revitalising an aspect of the league, a plan for a tournament to take place during the early stages of the regular season was put forward. Despite fierce fan criticism, it went ahead for the first time this season and was a resounding success. It culminated with the Los Angeles Lakers defeating the Indiana Pacers 123-109 in a well-fought final, with LeBron James taking home the inaugural Tournament MVP award.
Much of the pre-game discussion revolved around the Pacer’s offence, ranked number one in the league, and their dynamic Point Guard Tyrese Haliburton, who is having a historic season with regards to offensive efficiency and playmaking. Their impressive win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the semi-final had cemented their capability on the offensive side of the floor in the eyes of the NBA audience. However, the story of the game is one of a defensive masterclass from the Lakers and their premier defender Anthony Davis in particular. They limited the Pacers to shooting percentages rarely seen thus far in the season and didn’t allow any player to score over 20 points. By contrast, the Lakers’ offence was firing on all cylinders, with Davis having a vintage 41 point, 20 rebound, and 4 block game, going alongside strong production from the likes of LeBron James, and Austin Reaves off the bench. In a league which is defined and won by its superstars when it comes to the post-season, the Lakers proved throughout the tournament that when their key talent is performing they have the minerals to make a deep playoff run despite starting the regular season in a rather pedestrian way. The final did perhaps demonstrate the defensive reliance on Anthony Davis, something which could prove to be crucial given his unfortunate track record of injuries.
The new tournament is part of the solution to this, generating a buzz around winter basketball which is so sought after by fans
But aside from the Lakers, the most impressive part of the tournament is how delicately Adam Silver was able to integrate the tournament into an established league model. With all the talk about load management, which dominated narratives last season, Silver implemented his tournament model in a way which didn’t add any extra games on players who already have to play 82 regular-season games – apart from for the eight quarterfinalists. Arguably the biggest problem with the NBA format is the lack of intensity in some stages of the regular season. This is particularly true around November where injuries begin to become more prevalent, and teams are starting to find their level. The new tournament is part of the solution to this, generating a buzz around winter basketball which is so sought after by fans. The opportunity provided to smaller market teams such as the Pacers is also a testament to the success of the tournament. With the tournament the latest of his visions for a better NBA, Silver has continued to prove his worth when it comes to making ground-breaking changes in the league which reward things the fans want to see.
If there was a player who was never going to sneer at another opportunity to win something, it would be LeBron – which is what makes him so enamoured by his fans
The final word has to go to LeBron James though – not for simply winning a tournament which probably needed a team to win that is spearheaded by one of the league’s greats in order to establish the weight of the tournament – but for his attitude towards one of the league’s experiments. If there was a player who was never going to sneer at another opportunity to win something, it would be LeBron – which is what makes him so enamoured by his fans. He has somehow stayed a spotless role-model in a sport which is consistently riddled with controversial figures from the likes of Draymond Green to Ja Morant. Outside of James’ ridiculously impressive on-court legacy, transcending from the scrutinised 18-year-old rookie to the 39-year-old who has been the face of the league for a decade has been a remarkable thing to observe. With the level he is still able to tap into, it is not off the cards that he just keeps going, but no matter when he retires, the NBA owes a great debt to LeBron James. Becoming the inaugural winner of the In-Season Tournament MVP is merely another piece of history that he deserves.