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

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Saturday, November 11, 2023

The NBA announced on Aug. 15 its schedule for the group stage for 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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Friday | FAQ | Full Schedule

Embiid, Sixers hold off Pistons; Celtics ease past Nets

Briefly, it looked like the in-season tournament was going to see its first upset Friday night.

But, ultimately, Joel Embiid was too much for the Detroit Pistons as the reigning league MVP's 33 points and 16 rebounds gave the Philadelphia 76ers a 114-106 victory for their opening win of the tournament.

Detroit led by 12 points after the first quarter and maintained an 8-point lead at halftime, but Philadelphia dominated the second half to pull away. The Sixers leaned on their experience and sheer talent advantage, led by Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who had 29 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in 39 minutes.

Philadelphia has won seven straight since dropping the season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, and remain atop the Eastern Conference standings.

Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics snapped a two-game losing streak with a 121-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets. Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 28 points while Jayson Tatum contributed 23 points and 10 rebounds to get the Celtics back on track and keep them one game behind Philly in the East standings.

In other East action, the Washington Wizards are now 0-2 in the tournament games after a 124-117 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, who outscored Washington 36-20 in the fourth quarter to flip the game on its head and come away with the win. Mark Williams had 19 points and 21 rebounds for Charlotte, which had an dominant 64-36 edge in rebounding, including 25 offensive boards.

Friday's games

76ers 114, Pistons 106

Hornets 124, Wizards 117

Celtics 121, Nets 107

Rockets 104, Pelicans 101

Jazz 127, Grizzlies 121

Timberwolves 117, Spurs 110

Clippers at Mavericks, 8:30 ET

Lakers at Suns, 10 ET (ESPN)

Thunder at Kings, 10 ET

NBA in-season tournament standings


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).

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

Friday, Nov. 10

Brooklyn vs. Boston | East C | 7:30 p.m. | ESPN

L.A. Lakers vs. Phoenix | West A | 10 p.m. | ESPN

Philadelphia vs. Detroit | East A | 7 p.m.

Charlotte vs. Washington | East B | 7 p.m.

New Orleans vs. Houston | West B | 8 p.m.

Utah vs. Memphis | West A | 8 p.m.

Minnesota vs. San Antonio | West C | 8 p.m.

LA Clippers vs. Dallas | West B | 8:30 p.m.

Oklahoma City vs. Sacramento | West C | 10 p.m.

Tuesday, Nov. 14

San Antonio vs. Oklahoma City | West C | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

LA Clippers vs. Denver | West B | 10 p.m. | TNT

Miami vs. Charlotte | East B | 7 p.m.

Atlanta vs. Detroit | East A | 7 p.m.

Indiana vs. Philadelphia | East A | 7 p.m.

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

Dallas vs. New Orleans | West B | 8 p.m.

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

Minnesota vs. Golden State | West C | 10 p.m.

Memphis vs. L.A. Lakers | West B | 10:30 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 17

Philadelphia vs. Atlanta | East A | 7:30 p.m. | ESPN

Sacramento vs. San Antonio | West C | 7:30 p.m. | ESPN

Phoenix vs. Utah | West A | 10 p.m. | ESPN

Milwaukee vs. Charlotte | East B | 7 p.m.

New York vs. Washington | East B | 7 p.m.

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

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

Orlando vs. Chicago | East C | 8 p.m.

Denver vs. New Orleans | West B | 8:30 p.m.

L.A. Lakers vs. Portland | West A | 10 p.m.

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

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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