NBA Cup Revitalizes Regular-Season Bucks Basketball


Most NBA teams have not had the same luxury as the Milwaukee Bucks over the last five years. 

Ever since the Bucks took a massive leap forward into the top seed in the Eastern Conference in 2018-19, there has been no turning back. The Bucks have won more games in the last five seasons than any other team — including the best overall record during three of those five years.

Milwaukee hasn’t had much to worry about from October until mid-April, when the playoffs begin. Every year, it has become easier and easier for fans to become complacent during the regular season because Milwaukee projects to land somewhere in the top three in the East, as they have the last five seasons. 

This isn’t to say the players have become complacent. That is certainly not the case. But the fans seem to be in need of a jolt of intrigue before the All-Star break.

The NBA thinks it’s found the solution.

How does the In-Season Tournament work?

The schedule for the new NBA In-Season Tournament was announced Tuesday afternoon. The Bucks, who will be a part of East Group B, will play four games against the other members of their group. 

Per the league’s social media, this is how the tournament will work:

  • The 30 teams will be divided into six groups based on conference and last season’s regular-season records — Bucks (first in East last season) are grouped with the Knicks (fifth), Heat (eighth), Wizards (12th) and Hornets (14th).
  • Every Tuesday and Friday night in November (excluding Nov. 7, Election Night), games will count as tournament games. These games are still regular-season games, but they will help determine what teams move forward to the single elimination knockout rounds.
  • The team with the best record through the four games in each of the six groups, as well as two wildcard teams, will advance to the eight team knockout round held Dec. 4 and 5 at the home city of the higher seed.
  • The semi-finals and championship will be played on Dec. 7-9 in Las Vegas. All games besides the championship game will count toward the regular season record.
  • Teams will compete for the NBA Cup. The league will name an MVP of the tournament as well as an All-Tournament team. A prize pool will be allocated to the players on the teams that make it to the knockout round, with players on the winning team reportedly making $500,000 each.

Will the players care?

There’s a trophy up for grabs in December, and there are stakes.

That should be enough to peak Bucks fans’ interests. Although, there is concern about whether it will peak the players’ interests.

On The Athletic NBA Show podcast, Fred Katz posed the concern that star players may not have much incentive to compete. “For what it’s worth, if you’re on a max contract, I don’t know if you even care about [$500,000] because you’re making $50 million a year to begin with, and that is not enough to move the needle for you anyway.”

For the Bucks, this could prove to be an especially prevailing issue. While no player in Milwaukee will literally be earning $50 million off salary alone, Giannis Antetokounmpo is pretty close. He projects to make $45.6 million in 2023-24. Jrue Holiday projects to make $36.8 million, and Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez each project to make over $25 million each.

When all of the top players are big earners, the financial incentive seems a bit more flimsy than it would to an up and coming young team. 

The money might not do it, but maybe the excitement of competing for the very first NBA Cup and adding new hardware could prove alluring for the players.

Of course, there is the counter argument that it is just a distraction from the season and what really matters: preparation for the playoffs. Milwaukee’s core is hungry for ring number three, and it may be difficult to incentivize playing full throttle in December.

Revenge against Miami

But then again, what better way to prove that the Miami Heat won’t be able to pull off a repeat of last season’s first-round series, than knocking them out of the running for the NBA Cup?

It seems like fate that the two teams would end up in the same group. While the NBA Cup itself may not be motivation enough, maybe revenge is. And fans love revenge, too.

So, even if the In-Season Tournament isn’t selling itself, maybe the idea of winning a game with stakes against Miami can get the job done.

What are Milwaukee’s chances at winning?

Milwaukee’s chances at winning are solid. In their group, the Hornets and Wizards should not be major threats to win the bid to the knockout round, nor should they be threats to take a wildcard spot — unless their young players are more motivated. 

It’s difficult to predict the motivation for these games since it’s the inaugural season for the event. But, if it’s assumed that teams all play relatively as expected, then Milwaukee should be competing with New York and Miami for the group bid. 

It seems unlikely that the team with the best record in the league last season will fall below both the Knicks and Heat, so it’s not too radical to think Milwaukee should nab at least a wildcard spot in the knockout round. 

Once there, it’s likely that most teams will be high-level playoff contenders, so it’s really anybody’s best guess who will win, especially in a single elimination format.

And that’s the beauty of it. That’s what should excite fans. We’ve always wondered what it would be like if the NBA playoffs were held in a single-elimination March Madness style, and while it’s not the playoffs, we are finally going to get some semblance of an answer. 

Every game will be intense. 

Katz talked about how he was skeptical about the Play-In Tournament at first too, but now admits that he was wrong. I expect that he will take a similar stance on the NBA In-Season Tournament once he sees not only 7-seeds and 8-seeds playing in elimination games, but rather the league’s best teams like the Bucks and Nuggets. 

It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s different. So why not try it?

Even if Milwaukee doesn’t find much motivation to compete, it should be a fun experiment for fans anyway. 

It’s difficult to get fans to care before Christmas, and the league may have found a way to do it.

About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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