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Monday, December 04, 2023

NBA Cup Knockout Rounds Preview

Initially, I was skeptical that the NBA's in-season tournament would cure tanking and load management, but during Group Play it was evident that teams were playing harder than they have typically played during recent regular seasons; that it is both a welcome development and a sad commentary on the mentality of today's players and teams: the players and teams from basketball's golden age (the 1980s) did not need gimmicks to provide special motivation to play hard. I agree with Shaquille O'Neal that players are playing hard now not because of the prestige of the NBA Cup--the NBA Cup has no prestige yet--but because each player on the championship team will receive $500,000. I still say that the best way to permanently eliminate tanking and load management is to (1) relegate the worst teams to the G League and (2) prohibit the worst teams from participating in the NBA Draft. Losing revenue and losing draft picks will put a quick end to intentional losing, and will put a much better product on the floor than we have seen in the NBA in a long time.  

There are at least two drawbacks with the current NBA Cup format: (1) the use of point differential as the first tiebreaker in Group Play resulted in farcical situations during which teams ran up the score, and (2) there will be quirky scheduling this week for the teams that did not qualify for knockout round play. Regarding the first drawback, I am all for players and teams playing hard from opening tip to final buzzer, but intentionally running up the score in the waning moments of a blowout looks silly and renders those individual and team statistics meaningless: how many more points would the great teams and players of the past have scored if teams ran up the score instead of putting in the reserves? Regarding the second drawback, if a fan wants to see a particular visiting player or team how is he supposed to plan in advance for a week in which the schedule is dotted with "TBD"? 

The NBA Cup has produced some exciting moments so far, but at its core it is still a gimmick that was introduced (1) to generate more revenue (because the NBA cares about profits more than it cares about anything else) and (2) to encourage players and teams that have not been playing hard to play hard.

Eight teams advanced from Group Play to the Knockout Rounds: Indiana (East Group A winner), Milwaukee (East Group B winner), Boston (East Group C winner), and New York (East Wild Card) in the East, and L.A. Lakers (West Group A winner), New Orleans (West Group B winner), Sacramento (West Group C winner), and Phoenix (West Wild Card). Due to the vagaries of Group assignments and the small sample size of NBA Cup games, the top three teams in the overall West standings (Minnesota, Oklahoma City, and Denver) did not qualify for the Knockout Rounds, and the second ranked team in the overall East standings (Orlando) also did not qualify.

Boston visits Indiana tonight, followed by Sacramento hosting New Orleans. On Tuesday night, Milwaukee hosts New York while Phoenix visits L.A. The Semifinal games will be played on Thursday, while the Championship--the only NBA Cup game that will not count in the regular season standings and statistics--will be telecast by ABC on Saturday night from Las Vegas. 

The single elimination format makes upsets and random outcomes more likely, which is fine for the NCAA Tournament for a variety of reasons but runs counter to the NBA's long tradition of using playoff series to determine which teams are superior. Keeping that in mind, here are my brief thoughts about the Knockout Rounds.

Indiana has the NBA's highest scoring offense (128.8 ppg) and the league's worst scoring defense (125.9 ppg), while Boston ranks eighth in scoring offense (116.7 ppg) and fourth in scoring defense (107.4 ppg). Look for Boston's superior balance to rule the day. Milwaukee is still working out the kinks with the Giannis Antetkounmpo-Damian Lillard duo while figuring out to how to replace Jrue Holiday's defense and leadership, but Milwaukee squeaked by New York in Group Play and should be expected to beat New York again. Milwaukee would then host Boston in the Semifinals. I'll take Milwaukee at home. 

LeBron James has already publicly stated his goal to win the NBA Cup and get that extra $500,000, so this week he will not be in his infamous, self-described "chill mode." Anthony Davis' attention often drifts and his body often seems brittle, but he shined during the Lakers' run to the 2020 "bubble title" and I suspect that he will be in top form for the last three NBA Cup games. L.A. will win a shootout versus Phoenix, and then survive a close game versus Sacramento after Sacramento dispatches New Orleans.

We have yet to see Antetokounmpo face James in the NBA Finals, but the league office will be quite happy to showcase them in the NBA Cup Championship. Antetokounmpo will do his part, but L.A. will pound the paint with James and Davis while Lillard will miss too many three pointers as James adds the NBA Cup to his glittering resume.

It will be interesting to see not only how these eight teams do in the NBA Cup's single elimination format, but also how far they advance in the 2024 playoffs when battling for the real championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:18 AM



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