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What is the NBA in-season tournament? Format, schedule, groups

The NBA announced on Aug. 15 its schedule for the group stage of the inaugural in-season tournament, which will see the winning team earn the NBA Cup and its players $500,000 each.

The tournament — whose final will be on Dec. 9 in Las Vegas — will see each NBA team play a four-game group stage in November, with the group winners advancing to the knockout rounds.

The tourney will be a proving ground for the league’s newest star, as Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs have more nationally televised games (three) than any other team during this month’s four-game group stage.

So what, exactly, is the NBA Cup? How will the tournament work? Why is it happening? What is the NBA hoping to get out of it?

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Tuesday | Projections | FAQ | Full Schedule

Lakers, Pacers have clinching opportunities Tuesday

The fifth day of group stage play of the inaugural in-season tournament will present a few teams with their first opportunity to punch their ticket to the competition’s quarterfinals.

Two of the five games Tuesday night will feature teams with “win-and-you’re-in” stakes attached to their games: the Indiana Pacers, who travel to Atlanta to face the Hawks, and the Los Angeles Lakers, who will host the Utah Jazz.

Indiana, having won its first two group stage games already against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, can improve to 3-0 in East Group A with a win over Atlanta. Winning that game would clinch the group for the Pacers, as they could only be tied with teams they have already beaten.

A Hawks win, however, would then open the door for any one of those four teams, potentially, to win the group and advance to the quarterfinals. It would leave both Indiana and Atlanta tied at 2-1, with Indiana set to finish group play Friday against the Detroit Pistons, and the Hawks going to Cleveland for their final group play game next Tuesday.

The 76ers and Cavaliers will be playing an elimination game, as the winner will have a chance to claim either the Group A crown or the wild-card spot that will go to the best second-place finisher among the three groups, while the loser will essentially have no chance of qualifying for either.

For the Lakers, meanwhile, the path is simple: Beat the Jazz, and not only would the Lakers go to 4-0 in group play and clinch West Group A, but Los Angeles would also ensure it is going to host a quarterfinal game on either Dec. 4 or 5, with a chance to advance to the semifinals in Las Vegas later that week on the line.

The Jazz have their own chances of advancing, as a win over the Lakers would move Utah to 3-1 in the tournament and would clinch a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Lakers. Both teams would then have to sit back and wait to see what happens with the Phoenix Suns, who lost to the Lakers and beat the Jazz, and play their third of four group stage games against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

The Suns would then finish up group play Friday in Memphis against the Grizzlies, and if they were to win that game, a three-way tie between the Lakers, Jazz and Suns would be determined by point differential.

The other game of the day, featuring the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors, is in a similar place to the Cavaliers-76ers clash: The winner will remain with one loss in East Group C and still will have an outside shot of claiming a wild-card spot by winning out. The loser, on the other hand, will have two losses and will essentially be eliminated from a shot at reaching the quarterfinals.

Tuesday’s games

Raptors at Magic, 7 p.m. ET
Pacers at Hawks, 7:30 p.m. ET
Cavaliers at 76ers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Trail Blazers at Suns, 9 p.m. ET
Jazz at Lakers, 10 p.m. ET

NBA in-season tournament standings

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ESPN Analytics projects which teams will make it to the knockout phase of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament.







Through games of Nov. 17


Why is this happening?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has wanted to implement it for years, for a variety of reasons. Much like the play-in games, though, it took a long time for him to convince everyone involved to give it a shot.

The first hope, obviously, is that it generates revenue. The NBA believes the in-season tournament can become a significant moneymaking franchise over time because of the ability to sell its television rights — as it did with the WNBA’s version of the event.

The other hope is to draw more eyeballs to the league. The stretch of time the tournament is set within — from the start of November through the first week of December — might be the most irrelevant part of the NBA schedule.

It’s after the initial rush of the season starting, and alongside the college football and NFL regular seasons. If this tournament can bring more attention to the sport during its least relevant time of the year, it will be seen as a victory.

What is the format?

Silver has long been fascinated with European soccer, and the basis for the NBA’s in-season tournament lies in the cup tournaments across Europe. In those leagues, there is a regular-season championship, determined by the team with the most points over the full year, and then a separate tournament (or, in some leagues, multiple tournaments) that runs concurrently with the league season.

Unlike European soccer tournaments, though, which all are played outside of the league schedule, the NBA Cup is built into the NBA’s regular-season schedule. The 30 teams were split up into six five-team groups.

The four group stage games will be played on seven November dates: four Fridays (Nov. 3, 10, 17 and 24) and three Tuesdays (Nov. 14, 21 and 28).

The quarterfinals will be played Dec. 4 and 5 at the higher-seeded team, and the semifinals and championship game will be Dec. 7 and 9 in Las Vegas.

How will this impact the regular-season schedule and standings?

Typically, the NBA sends out a full 82-game schedule in mid-August. This year, though, the league only sent 80 games, with a gap in the schedule from Dec. 3-10. Each team’s final two regular-season games will be determined by how the in-season tournament plays out.

The 22 teams that fail to qualify for the knockout rounds of the in-season tournament will have their final two games scheduled — one at home and one on the road — on Dec. 6 and 8 against other teams eliminated in the group stage.

The East teams that lose in the quarterfinals and the West teams that lose in the quarterfinals will play each other on Dec. 7. The teams that lose in the semifinals in Las Vegas will have played their full allotment of 82 games, while the teams that reach the championship game will actually wind up playing 83 games — with the championship game not counting toward the regular-season standings.

Why does the NBA Cup include regular-season games?

Before its launch, one of the biggest questions surrounding the in-season tournament was why any team would be incentivized to compete in it. By making it part of the regular-season schedule, and making every game count toward the regular season — very important from a playoff tiebreaker standpoint — the NBA created a situation in which it is in teams’ interest to win these games.

If this had been set up like the cup tournaments in European soccer, there would’ve been nothing stopping NBA teams from opting out literally or figuratively, sitting all of their top players and getting extra rest time. Under this system, though, they’ll have every incentive to play and win.

What teams make up the groups?

To create the groups — which were separated by conferences — the NBA put all 15 teams in each conference into five pots, separated by their finish in last season’s standings. So: Pot 1 included the teams that finished 1-3 in regular-season record, teams 4-6 went into Pot 2, teams 7-9 in Pot 3, teams 10-12 in Pot 4 and teams 13-15 in Pot 5.

As a result, the following groups were drawn:

East Group A: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons

East Group B: Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets

East Group C: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic

West Group A: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, LA Lakers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers

West Group B: Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets

West Group C: Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs

What do players get for winning?

The players on the winning team will each get $500,000, while the runners-up will get $200,000. The losing players of the semifinals will each get $100,000, and the losing players of the quarterfinals will each get $50,000.

Will anyone earn individual honors for their play in NBA Cup games?

There will be a Most Valuable Player award for the in-season tournament, as well as an all-tournament team.

Will this have any impact on the playoffs?

Not beyond the games being regular-season games that count in the standings. While there was some debate among league insiders about guaranteeing a playoff berth as a reward for winning the tournament, ultimately that idea — or any other to further incentivize teams — was not enacted. The only playoff impact will come from the wins and losses accrued throughout the tournament.

Why is it called the NBA Cup?

Because it’s easy enough to change. In the short term, the NBA has said it went with the most basic of titles for both the tournament and its trophy — the “in-season tournament” and “NBA Cup” — as a way to introduce the concept to fans. However, using such bland, nondescript names has another clear advantage: When the league looks to sell the naming rights to both, it’ll be an easier transition from an unremarkable name than one connected with a specific individual (such as the late David Stern, one possibility that had been floated before the tournament was officially unveiled).



Harden wins it for Clippers with 4-point play in final seconds

James Harden connects on a huge 3-pointer while getting fouled to give the Clippers the win over the Rockets.

In-season tournament scores and schedule

*All times are ET

Nov. 3

Pacers 121, Cavaliers 116

Bucks 110, Knicks 105

Heat 121, Wizards 114

Nets 109, Bulls 107

Trail Blazers 115, Grizzlies 113 (OT)

Nuggets 125, Mavericks 114

Warriors 141, Thunder 139

Nov. 10

76ers 114, Pistons 106

Hornets 124, Wizards 117

Celtics 121, Nets 107

Rockets 104, Pelicans 101

Jazz 127, Grizzlies 121

Timberwolves 117, Spurs 110

Mavericks 144, Clippers 129

Lakers 122, Suns 119

Kings 105, Thunder 98

Nov. 14

Pacers 132, 76ers 126

Hawks 126, Pistons 120

Heat 111, Hornets 105

Nets, 124, Magic 104

Pelicans 131, Mavericks 110

Thunder 123, Spurs 87

Nuggets 111, Clippers 108

Timberwolves 104, Warriors 101

Lakers 134, Grizzlies 107

Nov. 17

Bucks 130, Hornets 99

Knicks 120, Wizards 99

76ers 126, Hawks 116

Cavaliers 108, Pistons 100

Celtics 108, Raptors 105

Kings 129, Spurs 110

Magic 103, Bulls 97

Pelicans 115, Nuggets 110

Suns 131, Jazz 128

Lakers 107, Trail Blazers 95

Clippers 106, Rockets 100

Tuesday, Nov. 21

Cleveland vs. Philadelphia | East A | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Utah vs. L.A. Lakers | West B | 10 p.m. | TNT

Toronto vs. Orlando | East C | 7 p.m.

Indiana vs. Atlanta | East A | 7:30 p.m.

Portland vs. Phoenix | West A | 9 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 24

Boston vs. Orlando | East C | 2:30 p.m. | NBA TV

Phoenix vs. Memphis | West A | 5 p.m. | NBA TV

Miami vs. New York | East B | 7:30 p.m. | ESPN

San Antonio vs. Golden State | West C | 10 p.m. | ESPN

Chicago vs. Toronto | East C | 7:30 p.m.

Detroit vs. Indiana | East A | 8 p.m.

Denver vs. Houston | West B | 8 p.m.

Washington vs. Milwaukee | East B | 8 p.m.

Sacramento vs. Minnesota | West C | 8 p.m.

New Orleans vs. LA Clippers | West A | 10:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Nov. 28

Milwaukee vs. Miami | East B | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Golden State vs. Sacramento | West C | 10 p.m. | TNT

Chicago vs. Boston | East C | 7:30 p.m.

Toronto vs. Brooklyn | East C | 7:30 p.m.

Atlanta vs. Cleveland | East A | 7:30 p.m.

Charlotte vs. New York | East B | 7:30 p.m.

Oklahoma City vs. Minnesota | West C | 7 p.m.

Houston vs. Dallas | West B | 8:30 p.m.


Dec. 4 | TBD | 7 or 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 4 | TBD | 9:30 or 10 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 5 | TBD | 7 or 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 5 | TBD | 9:30 or 10 p.m. | TNT


Dec. 7 | TBD | 5 p.m. | ESPN

Dec. 7 | TBD | 9 p.m. | TNT


Dec. 9 | TBD | 8:30 p.m. | ABC

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