MEMPHIS — It takes a naturally competitive spirit to become a professional athlete. You have to love winning and strive for it, no matter what. Still, even the most competitive of NBA players will tell you that if there is something to play for, if there are stakes, a different side of them emerges.
“I’ll make a joke every once in a while, you know. I’d like another watch, or to spend some money on some cars. In all seriousness though, I think we just want to go out there and compete and win.” — Jordan Clarkson on the NBA’s in-season tournament
So, even though it’s not clear how successful the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament is going to be or if it is going to make the NBA regular season more interesting to fans, make no mistake, the Utah Jazz want to win it.
“These are competitors at the highest level, and it doesn’t matter if it’s we’re going to shoot free throws for $5 or we’re going to play a tournament for a lot more than $5,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “If there’s something on the line, the guys are very competitive, they’re gonna go after that. I have no doubt this will be the same.”
And we aren’t talking about $5. The Jazz and every other team is vying for the NBA Cup and a winner’s pool that will pay every player on the winning team $500,000.
That’s more than the players on the Denver Nuggets were awarded for winning an NBA title last season and that’s not a small thing, even to the higher-paid players.
“I’ll make a joke every once in a while, you know,” Jordan Clarkson said. “I’d like another watch, or to spend some money on some cars. In all seriousness though, I think we just want to go out there and compete and win.”
That’s the most important thing here. No one wants to lose.
In this opening phase of the in-season tournament, each team is in a group of five teams within their conference. The Jazz are in a group with the Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Throughout the month, on designated nights, the Jazz will play one in-season tournament qualifying game against each team in that group. The team with the best record in those games will automatically advance to the next round.
Nobody wants to be on one of the teams that are left out. It’s one thing after 82 games — coming to terms with where you are in the standings and seeing where things are trending for months — but it’s a whole different story if you can’t win four games early in the season.
There are going to be bragging rights that come out of this and confidence that can carry throughout the rest of the NBA calendar.
“It’s going to be really interesting,” John Collins said. “I don’t know if it’s going to make things more competitive, but I can’t see it being any less. And you definitely don’t want to be the team watching from home. A trip to Vegas? A nice check? During the season? That’s not bad.”
Oh yeah, there’s that little detail, too.
Eight teams (six group phase winners and two wild card teams) will advance to a knockout, single-elimination stage. Then the semifinal and final games of the tournament will be held in Las Vegas in December.
I’d be willing to bet you can’t find an NBA team that doesn’t want to make a trip to Las Vegas during one of the coldest parts of the NBA season with a chance to win a whole bunch of money.
While some people have compared the in-season tournament to midseason tournaments that are played at the college level, the cash prize changes the dynamic.
“In college you’re playing for pride. With this, you’re playing for pride and some money. A couple steak dinners,” Walker Kessler said before being reminded of the size of the check that will go to the winners. “OK, a lot of steak dinners.”
Friday is the first game of in-season tournament play for the Jazz, but they’ll have three more — Nov. 14 at home against the Blazers, Nov. 17 at home against the Suns and Nov. 21 in LA against the Lakers.
The knockout round begins Dec. 4 and the NBA Cup winners will be crowned in Las Vegas on Dec. 9.