The New York Knicks qualified for the In-Season Tournament’s knockout round as the Eastern Conference’s wild card, and everyone seems to be happy about it. Players and teams are really into this thing. It’s been a legitimate jolt for the league in what is typically a dead zone in the NBA schedule as the NFL dominates the collective conversation.
But it’s not all good news for the Knicks.
See, all these IST games also count toward your regular-season record. The Knicks are set to face off with the Milwaukee Bucks in the IST quarterfinals next Tuesday. They already have four games on the schedule against Milwaukee. This becomes a fifth.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers, by virtue of not qualifying for the knockout stage, have been assigned an extra game against the lowly Wizards, and the Heat, also knocked out of the IST, get an extra game vs. the Raptors as the blanks in the schedule get filled in to account for the teams still vying for the NBA cup.
In other words, the Knicks’ “reward” for advancing is an extra game against an elite opponent, which will count toward their ultimate playoff seeding.
It could get worse. Let’s say the Knicks beat the Bucks and the Celtics beat the Pacers in the East’s two quarterfinal matchups. That would put New York against Boston (a fifth matchup on the schedule) in the semis, which would also count for their regular-season record. Ten games against the Celtics and Bucks is a rough hand to call a “reward.”
If the Knicks were to have to play those games and still not win the Cup, which would at least reward each player with $500K (which would go a long way for some of the lesser-paid players), that could be a tough pill to swallow as these teams jockey for playoff positioning in March and April, when one or two games could make a serious difference in seeding.
What if the Knicks end up one game beneath the play-in line with an extra loss against the Bucks, while Miami finishes one game above with an extra win over the Raptors?
A similar scenario could play out for the Lakers, who have also qualified for the IST knockout stage. They play the Suns in the quarterfinals, which makes for five games against Phoenix. If they win, they could end up playing the Kings in the semifinals, which would make for five games against the Kings, another really good team, as well.
On the other hand, the Timberwolves (just as an example), by virtue of not advancing past the IST’s group stage, have been fed an extra game against both the Spurs and the Grizzlies — two of the league’s worst teams. They should win both of those games.
It is not unrealistic that the Lakers and Timberwolves end up within a few games of one another in April. If that happens, who would you rather play two extra games against? The Suns and Kings, or the Spurs and Grizzlies? Clearly, the Timberwolves will have come out ahead in the scheduling department, even though the Lakers are the team supposedly being rewarded.
This isn’t to poke holes in the IST structure. I think they’ll work out some kinks before next year; potentially inequitable scheduling quirks could be at the top of the to-do list. You have to get something off the ground before you start fine-tuning it, and this tournament has been a clear positive for the league. It’s just that there are some legitimate negative to consider.