How we know stars cared about the In-Season Tournament
Star participation is way up this season, propelled by the In-Season Tournament.
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Was the In-Season Tournament a success?
I shared some of my thoughts over in thecomments on Monday (go read Ethan’s piece!), but my overall feeling is that the In-Season Tournament should be scored as a win for the league.
We now know that the NBA Cup finale between the Lakers and Pacers drew over 4 million viewers on ABC, a 32 percent bump from last season’s Warriors-Celtics Finals rematch in the same window. Per Sports Media Watch data, a Pacers game drew the largest NBA audience outside of Christmas and the postseason since February 2018 (Cavaliers-Celtics: 4.64M).
Ratings are one barometer. Here’s another metric I’m paying close attention to: star participation. As I’ve covered on this Substack, the NBA has tried to get its stars to play more and many around the league expressed skepticism that their Player Participation Policy would have much effect.
One thing that can’t be argued: stars are playing more this season.
I’ve been tracking how often stars played in the In-Season Tournament vs. “regular” regular-season games this season (using the NBA’s definition of being named to All-Star or All-NBA in the previous three seasons). The verdict is clear. Stars showed up more in the new construct, playing in almost 90 percent of its games, an increase of almost 10 percentage points compared to the rest of the schedule.
(If you take out Ja Morant, who has been sidelined due to suspension, stars played in 199 out of 218 possible player-games in the Tourney, which is an astounding 91.2 percent participation rate.)
Teams basically treated the IST like they were legit playoff games because, well, the league structured it like the playoffs. The league shrewdly built the IST schedule in such a way that none of the games would fall on the second night of a back-to-back, much like the postseason setup. With raised stakes and more rest days, stars typically grind it out and play a higher percentage of games in the playoffs compared to the regular season (LeBron has never missed any of his team’s 282 playoff games). We’re seeing a similar trend for the In-Season Tournament, which has to make the suits happy.
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Really, it’s been a banner start from a star perspective, the In-Season Tournament just took it to another level.
Only one star, Nikola Vucevic, played in every game last season. This season, twelve stars are on track to play in every game. Twelve! Even more crazy: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two of them!
Kawhi has played in 22 straight games to open the season, playing in all three of the Clippers’ zero-rest games. If All-NBA teams were decided today, he might be on the short list, the first time he’d make All-Star or All-NBA since 2020-21.
It’s one of the more under-the-radar stories of the season. Kawhi’s longest string of games last season? Six. His longest string of games in a Clippers uniform? Thirteen. He’s at 22 and counting (knock on wood). With health on their side for once, the Clippers have quietly won nine of their last 12 games, with a top-6 net rating over that time.
Kawhi and others have powered a remarkably healthy start to the season. Usually we see a steady decline in star participation from 90 percent to 75 percent in the opening month of the season as the 82-game grind starts to gnaw at joints and soft tissue. But this season, star play percentage held strong at around 90 percent for the first 15 games of the season, wayyy above recent norms.
That pink line hovering above the dotted blue line? I have to believe that’s the IST Effect. More rest, higher stakes, more stars.
Over in Phoenix, we haven’t seen the Suns’ star trio play in a game together yet this season, and it won’t happen on Tuesday night; Bradley Beal (back) is in but Kevin Durant is out (ankle). Ben Simmons, LaMelo Ball and Zach LaVine are banged up again, not to mention Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo.
But everywhere else you look, the box-office players have delivered. Reasonable minds can disagree whether it’s a run of good luck or evidence of a cultural reset. But there’s no denying that, from LeBron James to Tyrese Haliburton, stars shined brightly in the In-Season Tournament. And that’s a win for everyone involved.