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The NBA is doing something different this season. For the first time in its history, the league is hosting the In-Season Tournament, placing additional meaning to a handful of regular season contests early in the schedule.
RunYourPool has collaborated with the Association to bring fans a way to engage directly with the format of the NBA In-Season Tournament Contest. Contestants are asked to order the five teams in each of the competition’s six groups, first through fifth, to predict how Group Play will shake out. For each team in a group’s top two you pick correctly, you’ll be awarded two points, and each bottom three in a group that’s picked correctly is good for one point.
There’s a lot to consider when making these decisions. This isn’t the playoffs, and you can’t think about this tournament in the same way. It’s still the NBA – the best teams with the best players will always have the best shot. But for an event that’s never been seen before, how do you make your judgments?
That’s the big question for pickers to grapple with between now and the tip-off of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament on Friday, and it’s the one I’ll try to wrap my head around now.
NBA In-Season Tournament Group Play Picks & Preview
Group East A
This is one of the more even groups in the game, with four of its five finishing in the top 11 of the Eastern Conference standings last season but none advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs. Everyone looks in play to advance out of East A. Well, almost everyone: sorry, Detroit.
Other than predicting the Pistons last, this is a tough one to parse. The Sixers have the big names, but will a combination of drama and the loss of some role players bring them down a level, or can they withstand those departures and other obstacles with huge talents like Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey still on their roster? The Cavs took a big leap last year, then flamed out in the playoffs, but there’s enough power in their squad to run this group. The Hawks and Pacers both figure to be somewhere in the middle of the East, but where exactly is unclear.
Even though the 76ers have the headlines, I like Cleveland to take first in East A. The Cavaliers have many of the same players who took the team on a nice run in 2022-23, plus they added important supporting pieces like Max Strus and Georges Niang in the offseason. Couple them with Donovan Mitchell, Caris LeVert, and Evan Mobley, and I think you have something worthwhile.
I have Philly advancing, though. Atlanta has too many question marks on the defensive side of the ball for me to rely on it, and while I think the Pacers may have elevated themselves into at least the Play-In Tournament with their changes in the summer, I can’t trust them to put it together so quickly.
My East A picks:
Group East B
This is the most top-heavy group of the six with the 2021 NBA champions, the 2023 Eastern Conference winner, and a team that claimed 47 games and went to the second round of the playoffs a year ago. Then you’ve got two of the biggest basement-dwellers in the entire league. It would be a massive upset if the Wizards or Hornets finished in a qualifying position in this group. Maybe these teams can take steps forward this year, but I don’t see it happening in this competition.
Now equipped with Damian Lillard, the Bucks are among the favorites for the NBA title, the In-Season Tournament crown, and certainly to sit atop East B. I am giving them the nod for the top spot in the group. Second place is a tough call, though, with the Knicks and Heat both hovering in that unknown middle of the conference.
The Heat lost some of the important players who helped them go on their magical run to the 2023 NBA Finals, like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, but there is still so much here to like. Jimmy Butler, a healthy Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo are obvious, but Erik Spoelstra is one of the best in the business. I think he will get the best out of role players like Jaime Jaquez Jr., the No. 18 overall pick in June’s draft. That’s enough for me to give Miami the edge over New York, even if only by a smidge.
My East B picks:
Group East C
After the Celtics, who look like the clear top dog in East C, it’s a mess. Does anyone have a clear-cut idea of who’s better among the Nets, Raptors, Bulls, and Magic? If you do, then you’re playing the right game.
I don’t, but I have to work out a way to separate them all the same. Based on the nature of this event, Orlando is the team I’m sliding up into a Knockout Rounds position.
A young team that should be hungry to prove something, the Magic feel like the right sort of side to make a run in this thing. They have last season’s Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero, added two more lottery picks to their arsenal in the draft, and Franz Wagner is poised for a notable third year as a pro. They won’t be in the mix for the NBA Finals and might not even make the playoffs, but getting out of this group is attainable, and I expect that to be the driving force for this up-and-coming collection.
My East C picks:
Group West A
On paper, the Suns and Lakers should run this group, but that ignores an important nuance: how seriously will Phoenix and Los Angeles take the In-Season Tournament, at least compared to the other three teams in their group?
The Suns and Lakers both have designs on the ultimate prize, and they both have employed resting tactics in the past. The NBA’s new rules around sitting players for load management could impact how these teams approach their rotations, but there is still the very legitimate question of how hard these teams’ superstars will play in the In-Season Tournament contests.
But I don’t think the rest of the group offers enough competition for me to go against the favorites. The Grizzlies have a whole host of issues going on and won’t have Ja Morant for this tournament. The Jazz bolstered their frontcourt with the acquisition of John Collins, and things should be better in Salt Lake City in 2023-24, but it’s not enough for me to push them above two of the current titans of the NBA. And the Blazers are, well, they’ll be there, too, at least in spirit.
Splitting apart Phoenix and Los Angeles is difficult, but the better depth the Lakers possess is enough for me to hoist them into the top spot. I don’t expect the big names for either of these teams to take the In-Season Tournament all that seriously, but I’d rather have a supporting cast of Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, and Gabe Vincent pick up that slack than Grayson Allen, Josh Okogie, and Jusuf Nurkic.
My West A picks:
5. Trail Blazers
Group West B
The reigning NBA champs in a group without another team that won more than 44 games – it’s not a tough choice to pick a winner here. That said, the Clippers, Pelicans, and Mavericks all have an argument for why they could surprise some people to take first in West B, but I’m not buying it. Denver isn’t a team known for resting its starters, and if its full complement of talent is giving complete effort, then it’s unquestionably the best team of the five.
The second spot is the much bigger dilemma. Outside of the Rockets, who will get no further mention in this write-up, it’s totally up for grabs. The Clippers are loaded with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but neither has had much luck with health, a serious mitigating factor for them over the last half-decade. The Mavs can score at will with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, but can they defend and rebound enough to succeed? The Pelicans have some injuries among their depth, but Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum are all playing, and they’ve been playing well to start.
I like how the Pelicans defend, and this feels like the perfect sort of competition for a team in their position. I don’t trust the Mavericks to keep their opponents off the glass enough, and the Clippers are too liable to have someone important fracture something important. Give me New Orleans.
My West B picks:
Group West C
This group will provide us with a rematch of the awesome first-round series between the Warriors and Kings, plus offers a look at a couple of squads with some of the most exciting fresh faces the NBA has on display. The dichotomy of teams that have been there compared to teams that want to prove anything might influence West C results.
Golden State has been a mainstay atop the NBA for about a decade. You can never count the Warriors out when it comes down to it, and their roster is loaded with household names. But does the In-Season Tournament really matter that much to them? Does anything but another NBA championship matter to them? I’m betting no, and given their standing in recent times in a reasonable stance for them to take. They don’t need to do well in this event to prove anything to anybody, and that’s why I’m putting them outside of the top two of this group.
Meanwhile, the Kings and Thunder have plenty to prove, and the In-Season Tournament is an excellent stage for it. Sacramento had a great run in the regular season and pushed the Warriors to the brink before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs. Still talented and ready for another go, doing well in this event would be an awesome way to build momentum and belief before the bigger stuff comes down the road. Oklahoma City has missed the postseason for three seasons running, but it showed more life in 2022-23 than in a while with a 16-win improvement. There are so many exciting young pieces on the Thunder, from Chet Holmgren to Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey, and more, with 25-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the grizzled vet of the group.
Both teams feel like better fits for this competition than any of the other three of their competitors, and for that reason, I’m giving them the go-ahead for the Knockout Rounds. Queue everyone piling on the Warriors only for them to be serious title contenders yet again.
My West C picks:
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