NBA in-season tournament courts, ranked from worst to best

Like nearly every NBA fan, I reacted to my editor informing me that “The Mid-Season Tournament” is actually called “The In-Season Tournament”, and that it begins Friday rather than months from now, with complete and total shock. I was, however, delighted, because in addition to informing me of this, he asked if I wanted to review and rank each of the team court designs that were created for this momentous non-event.

As a serious basketball writer and resident of America’s art capital, who tries to go to MoMA, the Met, the Guggenheim, or the Whitney (or the Brooklyn Museum if I absolutely have to) once a quarter, but probably lands closer to twice a year since my kids were born, and who owns five (5!) coffee table art books from exhibitions on Marcel Duchamp, Kerry James Marshall, Picasso, Rothko, and Virgil Abloh, I’m uniquely qualified to weigh in on this all important marriage of sports and art, and apply a silly arbitrary order (broken into four groups) to that study. I’m pleased to be able to say I found slightly more good than bad in their work.

Please enjoy, and relish, this work of critical scholarship, whose memory will doubtlessly live as long as the memory of this beautiful, brilliant, certainly permanent, annual basketball tradition.

Terrible

30. New Orleans Pelicans

A real shame, as New Orleans is an incredible city and a franchise with a cool name and mascot, and has a rare great corporate sponsor, all rich veins to tap for creative on court expression. They’re leaning into the purple, gold, and green Mardi Gras colors, which has produced some of the best special edition jerseys ever made, but have opted for a bizarre neon puke shade of each, with a skeletal logo, nodding to Halloween, for a tournament starting in November, producing a scheme that would look more at home on an off-brand superhero costume than a basketball court.

29. Washington Wizards

Completely grotesque, in league with the Pelicans and upcoming Suns palettes, a classic case of the curtains matching the drapes, book matching its cover, ugly inside and out, etc etc etc.

28. Golden State Warriors

A court that evokes air pollution at sunset, or an upset stomach. It’s a cool and storied franchise with a lot of interesting designs and colors they could’ve played with, so particularly unfortunate, but on brand for the franchise that drafted James Wiseman.

27. Detroit Pistons

Not exactly awful, but it’s hard to understand why so many of these teams committed to gray. Points for the “Detroit” font at center court, but there’s little to nothing else here to even discuss.

26. San Antonio Spurs

I actually like this court, but can’t support anything that steals Seattle valor to this naked, blatant degree.

25. Phoenix Suns

The best of the bad, a rare instance of a court design that actually took a swing but missed. The teal, purple, and bronze once again suggest a rejected superhero costume. Points for the colloquial, Spanish language center court, but its offset with official team logos on the sideline, and the result is unfortunately more discordant and abrasive than interesting.

Boring

24. Dallas Mavericks

What will be a trend for this section, a personality-less gray canvas, particularly odd for a team and color scheme that had a lot of options. I’d point the reader toward this fandom Reddit thread that has some fun at the expense of the lack of design.

23. Brooklyn Nets

Already on record here with my feelings towards Barclays Arena, in case anyone wants to accuse me of even feigning objectivity. But feel free to argue against this design being completely on brand with the franchise’s cynicism and lack of imagination.

22. Toronto Raptors

Another victim of “what is” competing with the possibilities of “what could’ve been”. Completely mailed in and boring scheme from a team with fascinating colors and themes to play with.

21. Miami Heat

Part of this exercise is finding something interesting to say about each court, so in many ways ugliness and bad decisions, let alone actual good ideas, are useful, which is why I struggled writing about the Heat’s court the most. My guess is the approach was meant to echo the self explanatory designs of the established teams you’ll find in the grouping below (above?) this one, tapping into our associations with the franchise, and their colors, and our associative history with them, but the Heat are just over 30 years old, won their first title this century, and has a fanbase more concerned with traffic than the regular season. Needed a touch more effort here, ironically completely clashing with the “Heat Culture” ethos.

20. Utah Jazz

Again, just lazy. A little more fun because purple is more energetic than black or gray, but little to nothing additive in design (with ample material to play with in the City Edition throwback mountain logo). The *ahem* missionary sex of court layouts.

19. New York Knicks

I’m finally a fan of this year’s City Edition Knicks jerseys, after years of bizarre and shitty options that appropriate design from the cops and firefighters that make up the right wing of New York’s sporting body politic, or just look like shitty Hot Topic Photoshop jobs. But this court reproduces the current City Edition scheme and design with no real flourish or imagination.

18. Atlanta Hawks

There’s fun to be had in the reference to the old Hawks colors and the “life as we fly” (All in lower case, which is interesting) at the bottom of halfcourt, but they don’t do enough with the scheme, and midcourt is just the logo.

Regal

17. Los Angeles Lakers

The color scheme, the gold on royal purple is obnoxiously iconic and you can’t blame the team for leaning on it. They’re not really trying at all, and sadly, they don’t have to.

16. Boston Celtics

Like the Lakers, the Celtics get away far too often with just trading on the iconography of their brand, history, franchise, etc. To their credit, this is the first time they’re even playing on an alternate court, and pay tribute to both Bill Russell and Red Auerbach with the opportunity. The 3D lettering is an additive to the task at hand and keeps them from “Boring”.

15. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have that bright, rich red as a base, which they layer with maroon in their keys. The coolest touch is the blinding white of the lettering on the floor and the logo, a great study in contrasts that draw the eye.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

A fun blend of old school and new. The retro logo with the seven and six back to back, a vibrant red and blue scheme, the additive blue on the far side line with arrows on the outsides and another team logo inlaid on a blue diamond. There is the “City of Brotherly Love” in mixed font on each baseline, it’s all indicative of design that requires thought and giving a fuck.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves

A simple, tasteful court elevated by a very dope logo allowed to serve as a focal point, and the good swatch decision to layer two mellow shades of blue on top of each other. Also the beneficiary of a corporate sponsor that adds something aesthetically. I need to see Ant drain a heat check from the bullseye at some point during the tournament.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

The “Best” of the gray courts, and a testament to how cool the Grizzlies logo and font is. The initial design of the jersey is inspired by art from the Northwest Canadian Haida tribe, native to the Grizzlies’ British Colombian birthplace. It reads the team’s name on one baseline and city on the other in trademark blocky, piped lettering, and the tribal design is the real saving grace, running along the bottom of the court. Still, you sense a missed opportunity in a number of areas where the team could’ve gotten creative, most of all, not utilizing their throwback turquoise somewhere on court.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers

The design is wise to lean on stately, lovely expressions of wine and gold, but there are little signature touches that allow the court to stand out, like the red “O” that in Rocket Mortgage, printing “The Land” at centercourt, or the “Let Em Know” slogan on the sideline. While we’re on the topic, it’s interesting how some of these courts have those catchphrases few fans outside, and I’d imagine a good deal inside the fanbase have ever heard, and some don’t include any, in a nod towards essentialism, or lack of effort. But The Cavs have a team slogan less awkward and random than the others.

Inspired

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

Reminiscent of the Bulls logo in that it layers two shades- one bright, one cool- of their blue on top of each other, then a shock in center court with a burnt orange and black logo. But for this seasoned art critic, the tonal contrast plays a bit better, and the small grace note of the state of Oklahoma at the center of the bottom sideline is a small, but crucial addition.

9. Houston Rockets

This probably should’ve been Detroit’s scheme, but the Rockets steal it, not just with the “H-Town” nickname at center court, but extra credit for the blue and white piping along the bottom sideline.

8. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are a hard to classify team because they’re the benefactors of a cool color scheme and logo before you even start considering how to play with these elements. But teams with cooler design and color options at their disposal did less with more. Charlotte’s retro-futurist logo which could be the font of a digital clock, or Socialist propaganda, on sea moss inlay with gold lettering, is enough to land them here, amongst the elites.

7. Denver Nuggets

There are 5,280 feet in a mile, and in a certain specific centralized location in Denver, the city is actually exactly a mile above sea level, celebrated in this court design, both at the logo and with a slogan on the sideline. The royal blue and bright gold is already a winning scheme the design is smart to lean into, and little accents of flair like the old school basketballs bookending the slogan, and the skewed star in the top left corner, make this court sing.

6. Orlando Magic

A cool design built around utilizing the Magic star as the letter “A” at eye drawing 3D angles. The team name is aggressive and nearly stretches from 3 point line to 3 point line. The Orlando with the “A” star substitute on each baseline is a nice touch.

5. Indiana Pacers

An electroshocked combination of aqua and yellow, with the wildstyle “INDY” design at midcourt. It’s the good and bold version of the evocative, off-brand superhero scheme I shit on several times earlier.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

A refined iteration of what Indiana’s court is doing, pulling out unconventional colors and a cool center court nickname logo. The basketball dotting the “i” in Clips is a chef’s kiss.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are the example of a court with a lot going on, and how that can be a good thing when every element in design is considered and additive. The cream base is a reference to their great 2019-2020 City Editions, playing off the neon mint court length strip that covers each key, with the blue raspberry futurist lettering on each baseline and in the badass geographic Wisconsin logo at center court, adding yet another complimentary flourish.

2. Portland Trailblazers

This is what I’m looking for. The Blazers aren’t doing too much with their scheme, staying true to their home colors, but offer tribute to their great championship winning head coach Jack Ramsey, both with his name printed like a signature at the center of the bottom sideline, and in the plaid that fills the “Rip City” at center court. They also offset their sideline signatures, with “Portland” and “Trail Blazers” on either baseline.

  1. Sacramento Kings

Sac-Town could easily slot into the “Regal” section, but their court design was too striking and original to place outside the top spot. We have to break out for a moment to acknowledge how badass that lion logo is, an incredible, fierce centerpiece, roaring with lighting bolts for eyes, but there’s plenty of small touches that set this court apart. The “Golden1” of the arena’s name being rendered in gold that picks up the center court trophy, the accents of blue and red lines on the bottom sideline, the acknowledgement of the franchise’s improbable 100-year trajectory, it’s thoughtful, it’s imaginative, it may even get me to tune into a few random in-season tournament games.

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