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Predictions for NBA’s 1st-Ever In-Season Tournament

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    Tom O’Connor/NBAE via Getty Images

    The first-ever NBA In-Season Tournament will begin on Nov. 3 and end with a championship on Dec. 9 in Las Vegas, with players on the winning team collecting $500,000 each.

    The league announced the official in-season schedule, which includes all 30 teams playing four group-stage games where their record will be recorded for tournament purposes.

    The six group winners, plus one wild-card team from each conference, will advance to the knockout round, with the final four teams playing in Vegas. All the details can be found here.

    Now that we have the schedule, it’s time to make some predictions.

    The team that wins the In-Season Tournament not only has to be talented but also motivated as well. Teams featuring veterans who have already signed huge contracts and won championships probably won’t be quite as motivated here, as playing in the title game means adding an 83rd game to the regular-season schedule.

    Here’s how we predict the inaugural In-Season Tournament will go down.

Group Play (Eastern Conference)

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    MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 26: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat drives around Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Fiserv Forum on April 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    For group play, conferences will be split into three groups of five teams each. Each team will play the other four in its group one time.

    The team with the best record in each group after four games will advance to the knockout round, as well as one wild-card team, classified as the side with the best record in the conference that did not win a group.

    In all, eight of the 30 teams will advance past group play into the knockout rounds.

    The Eastern Conference is split into the following groups:

  • Group A: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons
  • Group B: Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets
  • Group C: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic

While Group B looks like a bloodbath between the Bucks (most wins in the NBA last season), Heat (winners of the East), Knicks (won a playoff round) and Hornets (Miles Bridges returning and a healthy LaMelo Ball), Groups A and C don’t look all that scary.

The Cavs should be the favorites in Group A given the current circus in Philly and the fact that none of the other three teams finished over .500 last season. Cleveland is also fairly young and hungry to prove itself after a poor playoff showing against the Knicks.

Milwaukee may not be motivated to win the NBA Cup, but this group did take the regular season seriously last year en route to 58 wins. If Miami still hasn’t traded for Damian Lillard (or is still working out the chemistry between him and the rest of the roster) by November, the Heat won’t be at full strength yet. New York will be a tough out.

The Celtics should easily come out of Group C. Their biggest competition, the Nets, got swept in the first round while the other three teams missed the playoffs altogether. Toronto got worse this offseason with the loss of Fred VanVleet, and Chicago didn’t really get any better.

Projected Winners: Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks (wild card).

Group Play (Western Conference)

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    DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 26: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers dribbles the ball during the game against the Denver Nuggets on February 26, 2023 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Unlike the East, the groups in the West look far more fully loaded headed into the tournament.

    There may only be one true tanking team in the entire conference (Portland), with a lot of these squads looking better after a summer full of free-agent and trade acquisitions.

    The Western Conference is split into the following groups:

  • Group A: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers
  • Group B: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets
  • Group C: Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs

Even though Memphis is the unofficial No. 1 seed in Group A, Ja Morant will still be serving a 25-game suspension, thus wiping out any chance he’ll be playing in November. The Grizzlies will still be trying to integrate Marcus Smart into their system instead.

LeBron James hasn’t taken the regular season seriously since he was in Miami, while Utah and Portland will almost certainly be lottery teams in 2023-24.

This leaves the Suns, who should be hungry to prove this new core with Bradley Beal is championship-worthy and look to get some early playoff-style reps while they can.

Denver led the West in regular-season wins last year (53) and even if it isn’t motivated to win this trophy after the real thing, there’s enough talent here for the Nuggets to come out of Group B.

The Clippers will probably be load-managing one or both of their stars throughout the regular season once again, while Dallas (Grant Williams, Seth Curry, Richaun Holmes, Dereck Lively II) and Houston (Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore, Jeff Green) will still be working in all their new pieces.

Look for the Pelicans to grab the wild-card spot here, as Zion Williamson was (mostly) healthy until January last season and should be good to go at the start of 2023-24.

In Group C, the Warriors didn’t care about the regular season last year and definitely won’t now as they only get older. The core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Chris Paul have combined to sign over $1.6 billion worth of contracts in their careers, so even extra prize money for this tournament isn’t going to move the needle.

The Spurs will be fun to watch in 2023-24 with Victor Wembanyama, but they won’t win a lot of games with such a young roster.

The Kings, Timberwolves and Thunder will all be threats to win the group, with Sacramento’s roster continuity and success from last year ultimately carrying over to help it advance.

Projected Winners: Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans (wild card).

Knockout-Round Quarterfinals

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    Basketball: Sacramento Kings Domantas Sabonis (10) in action, posts up vs Phoenix Suns Deandre Ayton (22) at Footprint Center. 
Phoenix, AZ 2/14/2023 
CREDIT: John W. McDonough (Photo by John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X164313 TK1)

    Set Number: X164313 TK1

    Following the conclusion of group play, the six group winners and two wild cards will advance to the knockout round quarterfinals.

    These will consist of four, single-elimination games that will still be played in local markets, the last before the tournament heads to Las Vegas. Players on teams that lose in this round will earn $50,000.

    Here’s where our projected winners (and wild cards) from group play stand:

  • East: Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks
  • East: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
  • West: Denver Nuggets vs. New Orleans Pelicans
  • West: Phoenix Suns vs. Sacramento Kings

When trying to predict a winner, one has to factor in which teams will be OK with some extra traveling to Las Vegas as well as caring about the prize money from advancing to the next round (at least $100,000 guaranteed).

Boston has the right mix of talent and hunger to beat the Knicks here as it will likely have home-court advantage. This may be the best current core to have not previously won a title together and should be eager to make it back to the NBA Finals in June.

The Celtics take out the Knicks and advance to the Final Four in Vegas.

Milwaukee has the better team on paper, but with a title already under its belt in 2021, an older supporting cast around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez signing another $150 million worth of contracts this offseason, motivation may be lacking.

The Cavs may not get the Bucks’ best effort here and now have the shooting in Max Strus and Georges Niang to place around their stars.

Cleveland moves on to face Boston.

Like with the matchup above, Denver is the better team than New Orleans, but it may not be putting forth the full effort in November after winning the 2023 title with hopes of a repeat.

The Pelicans are talented, deep, (hopefully) healthy and motivated to take down a Nuggets team that is on the mountaintop.

Denver may be more talented overall, but this game will mean more for New Orleans.

Flying to Las Vegas doesn’t represent a great deal of traveling for either the Suns or Kings, but the teams are built quite differently.

With all but four players on minimum contracts for Phoenix, most of these Suns have the financial motivation to keep winning. Unfortunately, asking a 35-year-old Kevin Durant to play big minutes and take this tournament seriously may be too much to ask.

The Suns could still be figuring out each other’s names at this point after so much offseason roster turnover, while the Kings will run back the same starting five and most of their key bench pieces.

Projected Winners: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings

Knockout Round Semifinals

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    BOSTON, MA - MARCH 1: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers defends against Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter at TD Garden on March 1, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

    Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

    Welcome to Vegas!

    The Final Four of the In-Season Tournament will be played at T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL. Players who advance this far are guaranteed at least $100,000 in prize money.

    This is also where the tournament energy should shift.

    Teams who win don’t have to do any extra traveling with the Finals being held in the same arena just two days later. There’s also some significant financial jumps, as players who win this round are guaranteed at least $200,000 with a top prize of $500,000 if they win the entire tournament.

    The only downside to winning this round means playing an extra regular-season game, but the promise of $100,000 to $400,000 in extra cash should help ease those concerns.

    Here’s where our projected Final Four stand:

  • East: Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
  • West: Sacramento Kings vs. New Orleans Pelicans.

At this point, every team should be motivated and talent should take over. That’s potentially bad news for the lower seeds here, starting with the Cavs.

Cleveland isn’t on Boston’s level yet in terms of talent, experience as a group and in the playoffs. Outside of Isaac Okoro (who likely moves to the bench now with the addition of Max Strus), the Cavaliers don’t possess any plus defenders on the wing to try to slow down Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Seeing players like Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Brown and Darius Garland put on a show will be the highlight of the tournament thus far, especially since this will be the first NBA regular-season game played in Las Vegas.

Boston takes down Cleveland to advance to the Finals.

Sacramento vs. New Orleans will be a really good game, especially if Zion Williamson is healthy. This is also where we could see the inexperience of the Pelicans’ core, as Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have only logged a total of 355 possessions together in a season-and-a-half.

While they’ve been quite good when sharing the floor (plus-19.5 net rating), the Kings are bringing the experience of a third-place finish in the West and a seven-game playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

Sacramento defeats New Orleans in a battle of emerging Western Conference powers.

Projected Winners: Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings

Championship: Boston Celtics vs. Sacramento Kings

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    SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 21: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics is guarded by Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on March 21, 2023 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The In-Season Tournament championship will be held on Dec. 9 in Vegas, the only extra game on the regular-season schedule. Players on the winning team will earn $500,000, while the losing team will each pocket $200,000. That $300,000 difference should be enough to make this a wildly competitive contest.

    After group play and two knockout rounds, our projected championship game is set between the Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings.

    To make it here, teams had to check both major boxes.

    Talented enough to advance this far? Check.

    Young enough to still be motivated by the prize money? Check.

    Boston vs. Sacramento will feature two 2023 playoffs teams that ultimately fell short of their postseason goals. There’s plenty of star power here from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, with Kristaps Porziņģis, Keegan Murray, Derrick White and Harrison Barnes all playing major roles.

    A leaky Kings defense could make the difference here. While Boston nearly kept up with Sacramento’s league-best offense last season (119.7 rating compared to 118.3, ranked first and fourth, respectively), the Kings were a full 22 spots behind the Celtics’ third-ranked defense in 2022-23 (111.5 rating compared to 117.3).

    Boston also has the experience edge in big games, as Tatum and Brown have logged over 5,000 total playoff possessions together since 2017-18. A defensive frontcourt of Porziņģis, Robert Williams III and Al Horford will make life extremely difficult for Sabonis as well.

    The Celtics win the NBA’s first In-Season Tournament, with their eyes on another trophy come June.

    Projected Winner: Boston Celtics

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