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NBA in-season tournament: What's next after a stellar debut in Las Vegas

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AD dominates with 41-point, 21-rebound night as Lakers win in-season tournament (1:37)

Anthony Davis dominates with a 41-point, 21-rebound performance as the Lakers take home the first in-season tournament championship. (1:37)

Despite the praise from league insiders, players and fans for the debut of the NBA's in-season tournament, even its architect admitted it won't come back in exactly the same format next season.

"I want to thank all of the players in the league and the coaches, of course, the teams, for embracing this new concept," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday inside T-Mobile Arena before the championship game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers.

"I know it doesn't come without challenges. There's no doubt there's some things that we are learning this time through. ...

"Probably people are tired of hearing the word 'tweak.' So we'll come up with another synonym for that."

Whether Silver reaches for a thesaurus or not, the in-season tournament will evolve.

Here's a look, through conversations with players, coaches and executives from across the league, at several things that could change from this first iteration of the event when it comes back around next season, and beyond.


Will a team ever get something for winning the tournament?

Perhaps the biggest topic over the past several weeks around potential changes was the possibility of adding a reward for the championship team. The Lakers, for instance, dominated the tournament, winning all seven games by more than 19 points per contest, but the rewards are limited to the players and coaches earning cash prizes for their accomplishment.

People around the league believe there should be some sort of incentive given to teams for winning this tournament beginning as soon as next season, connecting the tournament to fans beyond their teams winning games and players and coaches getting money.

"I know for me personally, the money incentive is really cool," Pacers center Myles Turner said. "But to have more impact on the season itself ... I think that would be dope."

Both Turner and Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard don't believe giving an automatic playoff berth to a team would be a logical thing to do.

"I'm not saying like an automatic playoff bid," Turner said Wednesday during media day ahead of the quarterfinals. "I don't think that's something you can really just ask for right away."

"I wouldn't give somebody a playoff spot based off of this," Lillard said. "A lot of things can change from now until playoff time."

While a top-6 berth was universally seen as a bridge too far among league insiders spoken to by ESPN, one idea that had more support was guaranteeing the winner of the tournament at least the seventh spot, meaning they would get two home games to earn their way into the playoffs.

One pushback to that idea, though, is that it goes a bit against the idea of the play-in tournament, and what the league has done by giving teams incentive to push through the end of the regular season.

Turner proposed another idea: Give the in-season tournament champion a small but potentially critical advantage in postseason seeding.

"At the end of the season," Turner said, "if you had a [tie] with somebody, maybe if you win this tournament, no matter what you get an automatic tiebreaker."

Several others, including Lakers coach Darvin Ham, proposed there be a draft-related incentive.

Evan Wasch, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, said franchises have pushed for a team-based incentive, and it could be part of next year's event.

"Here's certainly a case we made that [a team-based incentive] isn't necessary because we had this really high-quality competition where teams and players were so bought in and we didn't have that incremental reward for teams," Wasch told ESPN. "But there are certainly those teams that have voiced that they think there should be something incremental. Exactly what that is, you know, is up for discussion. But I imagine that'll be on the list of things we discuss."

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Will the cash prizes increase for players and coaches?

When Ham was asked last week for potential tweaks to the tournament, he didn't hesitate.

"Yeah," Ham said Wednesday with a smile. "Add more money to the purse. If you want players to play at an extremely high level, increase the purse."

There's little doubt the financial incentives the league created -- $500,000 for each player on the winning team, $200,000 each for runners-up, $100,000 each for the semifinal losers and $50,000 each for the quarterfinal losers -- played an impact throughout the tournament.

Tournament MVP LeBron James joked about his Lakers teammates asking him "When will we get our money?" in the closing moments of Saturday's championship game. What guys would do with their money was a popular talking point.

But New Orleans Pelicans star Brandon Ingram felt the opportunity to win something new was enough to bring the best out of players.

"I'm not surprised [guys have taken to the tournament], because everybody loves competing for something, especially with all the talent that's in the league," Ingram said Wednesday. "You see how the Lakers came out [in the quarterfinals] and how Phoenix fought back in that second half.

"When the lights turn on, guys just start competing."


What about those new court designs?

While the tournament itself was widely seen as a success, the same cannot be said of the courts used throughout.

"I would like to see better designs for the courts," Lillard said with a smile. "That's one thing."

There were lots of complaints about players slipping on the courts throughout the tournament -- most notably from Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who was upset after a road win against the Toronto Raptors last month, when he nearly got hurt on one of the final plays of the game.

"I think as players we're all here for the in-season tournament because it's going to generate revenue, excitement, competition, but we've got to make sure the floor is safe to play on," Brown told reporters on Nov. 17. "We can't put our players out there and risk their health.

"I think they need to make sure that's the emphasis before somebody gets seriously hurt."

The Dallas Mavericks, for their part, never used their in-season tournament courts due to a manufacturing error, forcing the team to use their "core court" for both of their home games.

Aesthetic issues were also present. Certain courts -- specifically those that heavily featured bright reds and blues -- were difficult to take in on television.

Silver said teams will likely have more input on their designs next season.

"I'm a big advocate of the colorful courts," Silver said. "Obviously, we want to make sure the players have confidence in them and the type of paint used isn't more slippery. I think we dealt with those issues, incidentally, but want to make sure they are not a distraction.

"I think in the process we went through the first time, they are a bit cookie cutter. I love the court we are using here for the semifinals and final game, but I think there could be some more creativity."

And for anyone thinking the league would axe the courts completely, Wasch said there "will always be something that will be put out there to make sure that these games stand out from regular season games."


Will the NBA Cup name stick around?

The NBA is taking a wait-and-see approach with all portions of this tournament, including the names of the trophy and the groups the teams are placed into.

But the bigger question is around the name of the tournament itself, and the NBA Cup that is handed out for winning it. Wasch said before the tournament began that things were left as plain as they could be, both to see how the debut played out, and also to leave open the possibility they could be renamed or sold to sponsors.

Another idea that's been bandied about in league circles is naming the NBA Cup after late commissioner David Stern, Silver's predecessor. Silver said on Saturday that the league has struggled to find the proper way to honor Stern's legacy.

"We are calling it a cup, not a trophy, but there's also an MVP trophy, as to whether that should be something named after David," Silver said. "There are some who felt that it wasn't big enough. ... But I think everyone in the NBA community wants to make sure that they are sufficient to take into account the enormous amount he contributed to the game."


Will the groups look different moving forward?

This year, the league had five groups evenly drawn based on last year's standings. In addition to some confusion over group names (East Group A, West Group B and so on), having five-team groups that were not the divisions teams typically play in made it awkward at times knowing which teams were in which groups.

That has led some league insiders to propose having the groups be the divisions teams usually play in -- this could also solve the naming issue. However, grouping by division would likely lead to more unbalanced groups and would also remove the draw as an event, something the league did to great fanfare during the Las Vegas Summer League in July.

But a bigger complaint was that at least one of the five teams in each group was done playing before the final night of group play, watching from home while other teams had some control over their destiny. The Orlando Magic, for instance, lost out on advancing from East Group C while not playing on the final night.

"Certainly from a competitive standpoint, it's more optimal and in some cases more fair to have everybody playing," Wasch said.

Once the league inevitably expands to 32 teams in the next few years, an easy solution to this problem would be to match the FIBA World Cup format, and have eight groups of four teams.

Until that happens, could the league shift to five six-team groups?

Doing so would allow for an extra group stage game and for three wild-card teams, potentially giving more paths to better teams to advance.

It would also add more complications to the schedule, as it would require groups to include both Eastern and Western Conference teams, and would make an already complicated scheduling equation even trickier.

"We thought a lot about these things and tried to balance as best we could," Wasch said, "and this is where we netted out."


Will the point differential tiebreaker stick around?

In virtually every basketball competition outside North America, and in every international competition, point differential is a standard tiebreaker.

It is not in the NBA, which led to some awkward moments and hurt feelings during the group stage of the competition, such as when Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan was ejected against Toronto and teammate Andre Drummond was intentionally fouled to force him to shoot free throws as Boston looked to run up the score.

"I'm not ready necessarily to move away from it, but if ultimately there's going to be a sense, particularly from our American fans, that somehow it is an indication of poor sportsmanship, that's not a good idea for us to be doing it," Silver said of the point differential tiebreaker.

Some throughout the league suggested capping a team's point differential or counting quarters won to take away some of the more contentious moments that took place during the group stage.

On the other hand, the final night of the group stage was full of blowouts, but remained compelling because the games mattered right down to the very end.

Wasch said the league has already discussed creating a live standings graphic so fans at home can see in real-time what's happening across the league without having to try to monitor every game at once.

"I think we can do a better job educating on those things," Wasch said. "[A live standings graphic] would help you track across games without having to have them all on, or be doing math in your head."


Will the schedule look different?

There became a rhythm to the schedule in November. Tournament games being played on Tuesdays and Fridays helped with both promotion (by having them linked to national TV days) and exposure (by not competing with the NFL).

"You kind of know it's a tournament game," James said Wednesday.

The league got the Saturday night standalone championship game it wanted, but it required two semifinals on Thursday, including one at 2 p.m. local time in Las Vegas.

What got less attention, however, was what happened with the 26 teams that didn't make it to Las Vegas, and the last-second games that got thrust onto their respective calendars. Teams around the league were not thrilled about the logistical challenges that went into selling tickets and scheduling travel.

"I want to make sure we are being fair to them, their season-ticket holders," Silver said "In some cases, the ability to sell tickets on short turnaround. So we are looking at that data to see how much it affected their gate attendance."

Addressing that will be difficult without creating a significantly bigger gap between the end of the group stage and the start of the quarterfinals.

There also were some inherent inequalities in how these games played out. The Knicks, for example, wound up with 40 home games and 42 road games, and a couple of very difficult road games -- in Milwaukee and in Boston -- that resulted in losses.

"Whatever your circumstances are, you make the best of them," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said ahead of the knockout rounds. "They tell us we have to play this team five times, we play them five times.

"Sometimes [the schedule] is in your favor. Sometimes it's not. Just be ready to play. That's where we want the focus to be."