If NBA teams can raise division-title banners, they should be able to raise a banner for the In-Season Cup

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The inaugural In-Season Tournament is nearing its conclusion, which can only mean one thing: How can we find a new way to dump on it? Fortunately, a contrived controversy has been delivered on cue. The winner of this weekend’s In-Season Tournament will have to navigate the thorny situation over how to celebrate the first NBA Cup title and the divide between whether to hang a banner has become a divisive issue around the league.

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During a conversation with Rachel Nichols, Damian Lillard took the curmudgeonly approach by telling Nichols he’d rather take the money than raise a banner, despite nobody saying he can’t choose both. Tyrese Haliburton, like many young players, takes the Gob Bluth approach to banner-raising and prefers their fans “Take a look at banner, Michael!” But at least he is introspective enough to recognize why he values it more, telling The Athletic’s Joe Vardon, “I think at this point in my career, because I haven’t done anything yet, I’ll take a banner, but certainly (LeBron James) would not answer the same way.”

It’s fair to say that the more experienced the player is, the less they value the early portion of the NBA calendar.

Pelicans coach Willie Green, an older hoop head with a younger team, sounded enthused about the idea of raising a banner of any kind in the vacant Smoothie Center rafters. Tradition is stubborn and the In-Season Tournament still has a layer of orthodoxy to break through.

Adam Silver would obviously love it if the champion decided to raise a banner and invited him out there to emcee the event. However, half of the league is too cynical to appreciate the first year of the NBA Cup.

Yet, in their home opener, the Sacramento Kings hoisted a Pacific Division banner into the rafters. As long as NBA teams are commemorating regular-season division championships with banners, it’s all fair game. Of the major professional sports, division titles mean the least in The Association. Should it be that way? No. Clinching the division after an 82-game campaign is a significant achievement that costs copious amounts of time, blood, sweat and tears. But in reality, they just don’t carry the same weight as they do in other professional sports.

If there were a three-pronged Banner Test to determine whether an accomplishment is worthy of commemorating in the rafters, it would be based on this.

  1. Does the banner honor someone or an event that sticks out in the history of said organization? I’d say winning a month-long tournament done only once a season counts. Let’s be real here, few people can name the NBA’s six divisional champions off the top of their heads. But next December, we’ll all remember who won on Saturday.
  2. Is it embarrassing to raise said banner or will you be relentlessly mocked for it by your own supporters? Nobody wants to raise a banner to the rafters that will make them a subject of scorn or humiliation around the league, but oftentimes opposing fans will do that anyway. The Lakers 2020 championship is often derisively referred to as a “Mickey Mouse” ring, but they won it under the same conditions as every other team on a neutral court. We don’t discount MLB pennants won during World War II when dozens of pros were serving in the military. GMs just have to ask themselves if their own discerning fans will come to regret it.
  3.  Will the players respect it? Many wondered if the players involved would use this opportunity to get rest and rev up for the stretch between now and the All-Star Break. That’s not what happened. Title-contending teams like the Boston Celtics were pushing for large margins of victory to advance into the knockout round. They undoubtedly wanted to win. After a few months of apprehension, the In-Season Tournament wasn’t just a commercial success, but it earned credibility among the players whose participation Silver and the league needed it from. Raising banners is about stuntin’ on your competition. The NBA Cup is still in its infancy, but there may come a day when it gets treated with the same reverence as the English FA Cup. Once the first team does raise a banner, the rest will follow suit and some of these franchises are going to look foolishly retroactively acknowledging their past In-Season Cups

That credibility is key. This tournament doesn’t operate much differently than how the English football clubs treat the FA Cup, despite it not being the primary objective of Premier League clubs every season.

Obviously, soccer clubs don’t raise banners into the rafters because of logistical reasons– they don’t have roofs, but teams adorn their upper tiers with championship and cup banners across Europe. Why should the NBA be any different? The eventual champion can scribble or graffiti an in-season banner acknowledgment on their homecourt, hang a banner or find alternative means of representing their title in the arena. There’s no protocol for this.

The IST isn’t a secondary tournament like the NIT though. The eventual champion still had to slog through their NBA peers, but in a more high-stakes environment. In the Group Stage, every game felt like a Game 6, and after one loss or in the knockout stage, every clash was ostensibly a Game 7. If a blue-blood college basketball/NBA talent mill like UNC can raise banners for ACC titles or NBA teams can honor division titles and nobody says a word, then the In-Season Tournament championship banner shouldn’t be controversial.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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