The NBA’s new In-Season Tournament debuted last week to much fanfare — and not just because of the games themselves.
As part of the new initiative, the league unveiled 30 special new court designs, each using the same theme with distinct color palettes. Each home team will play on these courts during their pool play games in November before the event progresses to the semifinals and finals in Las Vegas in early December. The goal, according to Christopher Arena, the NBA’s head of on-court and brand partnerships, is to “elevate this from the regular season so that people understand how important (the event) is.”
So far, the courts have drawn a lot of, let’s say, strong reactions from fans and participants alike. It’s hard not to have an opinion on these, especially after seeing them in action.
NBA DEBUTS IN-SEASON TOURNAMENT COURTS FOR ALL 30 TEAMS pic.twitter.com/OHmOA8LYGL
— NBA (@NBA) October 30, 2023
Like everyone else, I, too, couldn’t help but notice the, ahem, distinct look of the new courts. But I’m also not an artist or connoisseur of visual media. I’m just an NBA editor and fan who loves watching basketball.
But I do work with a lot of really talented people at The Athletic who are actual design experts. These are people who have made it their life’s work to create custom illustrations for stories, products, ad campaigns, digital brands and much more. They understand, way better than I possibly could, what goes into creating the look and feel of a basketball court or, indeed, an entire new event within a sport itself.
I asked some of them to weigh in on these court designs. Our panel:
- Amy Cavenaile, editorial director of design and visuals
- Matthew Noe, product design manager
- Matt Schad, senior product designer
- Logan Emser, senior product designer
- John Bradford, editorial designer
- Jason Patio, visual designer
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OK. You’ve seen pictures of all 30 In-Season Tournament courts, and you’ve seen seven in action so far. Give us your first impressions.
Cavenaile: Well, they certainly grab your attention! Just not in a great way.
Schad: The courts are way too over-the-top. The full-court color is really distracting and busy and doesn’t translate particularly well to television – especially the red courts.
Emser: The courts are boisterous! Fun at first glance, but also a bit distracting. The full-bleed color treatment has drummed up a lot of hype, which I attribute to the unexpected nature it brings to every area. Some are extremely vibrant, while others are more subdued. The gray courts in particular feel less distinguishable from a team perspective.
Noe: First impressions are positive. I support big swings and taking risks in design.
Patio: I do enjoy the look of incorporating the trophy cup on the court. Very reminiscent of the 2005-10 era of the NBA Finals. Some teams throwing in their primary colors on the court is a bold move, and I appreciate the risk.
Bradford: Thirty unique courts produced and distributed over the course of 4-5 months is quite an accomplishment. There’s certainly a lot to look at, and an overwhelming amount of color — so much that it’s becoming hard to distinguish the players on the court. It sounds like it must have been harder to visualize the court’s boundaries, given that they actually had to double the width of the lines. Some might call that a solution without a problem.
I can appreciate the desire to distinguish the midseason tournament from a regular-season broadcast. However, the fan response has illustrated the sentiment well. It feels as though the teams may have placed too much of an emphasis on what they could do, rather than what they should do.
What do you think of the general template the league chose, with the entire court painted and a 16-foot lane in the middle that, according to the league’s head of on-court brand partnerships, is supposed to signify a “runway to Las Vegas”? Does it pop, or is there too much going on?
Bradford: Extending the City Edition Jersey designs to the court system was a sound direction, but it’s clear that leaning into bold colors and designing everywhere hindered the system approach. For example, the Detroit City Edition Jersey is easily one of my favorites this year, but avoiding dark colors, coupled with the mandate to fill the court with something, led to an odd grey surface that doesn’t feel like it has any relationship to the jersey beyond the logotype.
“Runway to Las Vegas” is a bizarre euphemism for secondary color. Not every visual design choice needs to be so meaningful. I think it’s perfectly fine presenting the “runway” as the framing element that it is.
It’s easier than you’d think to make your design “pop.” Does it pop? Of course! But it’s also aggravating, at times illegible, and challenges the fan base in a way that is somewhat laborious. This is a contest at the highest level. The virtue should be obvious.
Patio: I think that significance is a bit of a stretch. I genuinely feel as if they added in that strip just so they can break any audacious primary color.
Cavenaile: Of all the elements at play here — and there are A LOT — the 16-foot lane, or “runway to Vegas,” feels a little forced in terms of messaging. But truth be told, it’s the aspect of the design that bothers me the least.
The color, on the other hand, is really overwhelming in many of the designs, especially when you’re trying to focus on the game.
Schad: There’s nothing about the middle stripe that obviously signifies a runway or Las Vegas to me. So, I don’t get that. The only thing that makes sense is the trophy design, which I like within the two keys, but is unnecessary a third time on center court.
Noe: There is a lot going on, but I think that’s the point. In design, we talk a lot about embracing our constraints. The risk with a template system is that you may lose interest or variation. Clearly, that wasn’t a problem with this system. One thing I noticed was how well highlights stood out in social feeds. The floor designs almost created a mosaic on the timeline, which was a nice extra touch.
Emser: I think the league could have more cohesively executed the visual language for the tournament as a whole. We see the trophy used as a prominent visual marker throughout the campaign, to the extent of being the centerpiece of every court! That said, putting so much effort into the variety of each team makes the tournament brand itself feel less like a marquee event.
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Which are your favorite court designs and why? Which don’t work for you?
Schad: If I had to choose, I’d say the Magic is the best. Orlando’s is maybe the cleanest of them all, and their logo does look great on it. Honorable mention to Utah, just because I’m a fan of the purple throwback/mountain identity and the middle stripe isn’t some other insane clashing color.
Cavenaile: Design can be very subjective. That being said, the Orlando Magic court feels the most palatable to me.
I struggle with the Pacers’ court most. I’m from Indiana, and the design — particularly the colors and typography — bothers me because it doesn’t feel authentic to the Pacers’ brand.
Patio: I enjoy the ones that are affiliated with NBA teams’ new City Edition Jerseys. (Those are a whole other topic to talk about.) The ones like the Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics are a nice nod to those jerseys that aren’t overbearing. The ones that are abysmal? Indiana Pacers by far, and the choice of the Knicks’ drop shadow feels like it was produced by accident.
Emser: I dig the Lakers’ court. The yellow is easier on the eyes, and the L.A. brand is such a strong representation of the NBA. The purple and yellow are not only complementary, but exhibit a rich history of the game.
I also really like Cleveland’s court. The deep gold treatment, again, is easy on the eyes but feels married to the In-Season Tournament branding (trophy-like) in a way that none of the other courts do. Cleveland is also the team to whom I pledge allegiance, which might be what these colorful courts are all about at the end of the day.
Noe: San Antonio, Charlotte and Minnesota are my favorites. I love the muted palettes here, as they feel a bit more confident than others. Still very much accomplishing their goals without feeling like a cheap trick. While I appreciate the courage of the Pelicans’ court, the color is just too much for a floor.
Bradford: My favorites in the series are those that look most like an iteration on the team’s current venue and serve as a strong projection of their City Edition counterparts. Boston, Cleveland, Portland, and L.A. all do a pretty good job in those areas. They also feel like a fairly strong emotional extension of their localities, which I anticipate is the most important criteria to fans. Authenticity isn’t as valuable as some might think in the design space; fans appreciate a balance of fresh and familiar.
The warm grays are really tough on my eyes – Washington, Orlando and Detroit. Milwaukee and Oklahoma City have some real color contrast issues. New Orleans, while perhaps a decent extension of the City Edition look, is beyond wild. I feel like Nikola Jokić and Zion Williamson should be playing laser tag on that surface.
— NBA (@NBA) October 30, 2023
Let’s say the league asked you to run this project from this day forward. Let’s assume the goal is still to make In-Season Tournament games look and feel important and distinct. How would you go about that task? What would you keep as is? What might you try to tweak? What, if anything, would you ax entirely and start from scratch?
Noe: I think this comes down to identifying the role the NBA wants the designs to play. Design can sit front and center, or it can fade away and become invisible. If the goal is to continue to outdo themselves every year, they may get to a place where that becomes almost impossible. Even keeping a constraint in place (“runway to Vegas”) would be extremely important to preserve this new identity, but also set up for future design success.
Bradford: I certainly wouldn’t start from scratch. There is some reliable systems thinking at work here that tackles what is admittedly a profound design challenge. I’m not sure why the team felt the need to “elevate” the look and feel. The NBA fan experience is pretty great and authoritative as it is. I would have rather suggested we “ideate.” Bigger is not always better.
If the “runway to Vegas” concept was important enough to stakeholders that we’d run with it, I’d introduce a touch of color across the center of every court and leave the rest alone. Let the paint be the paint; it’s easier for players to adapt. If the NBA hopes to build some iconography around the trophy, then keep it there with the logotypes appropriated from the City Editions. I’d remove the ghost trophies from the paint on either side of the court. They’re unnecessary.
There’s plenty of opportunity for next year.
Patio: I would keep the inclusion on the trophies but significantly reduce the usage of teams’ main colorway. Utilize the gold-and-black palette of the trophy as the forefront and paint the post black with some lines being decked out in gold. I would also change the basketball to be in theme with the new look. Much like how the 3-point contests’ “money ball” is designed during the All-Star Games, it would be cool to see the black and gold theme be used in the ball.
Emser: If I were running this project, I would position the “runway” as the distinguishing visual marker for all the courts. Instead of a full-color bleed, the focus would be to establish variety for each team in that center lane and really work to pronounce the “We’re going to Vegas!” storyline. The Bucks’ court exemplifies this well, where the court itself feels most like the conventional wood color, but the punch of the aquamarine “runway” feels uniquely appropriate.
Schad: Like I mentioned before, I think the trophy imagery is nice, and it’s a cool way to liven up the paint. But my pitch beyond visual branding would be a theme song. My immediate connection to what the NBA is trying to do here is create something like soccer’s Champions League (even though it’s within the same league), but give it something that makes it stand out as its own brand or tournament. One of the best things about the Champions League is its theme song. When you hear that song in the distance, you know what time it is.
Cavenaile: These courts are the backdrop to incredible talent, and they’re going to be seen by most people on a TV, computer or phone screen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the current designs account much for function and the viewer experience. They distract from the talent we’re all so excited to watch.
If I had the opportunity to undertake a project like this, I’d work to stay true to each individual team brand while creating consistency across all courts. And I’d prioritize a design solution that feels special and dynamic without distracting from the reason we’re all watching in the first place.
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(Top photo of the following NBA courts Heat, Bucks, Bulls, Thunder, Pacers: Issac Baldizon; Gary Dineen; Jeff Haynes; Zach Beeker; Ron Hoskins / NBAE via Getty Images)