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

LeBron's vintage performance leads Lakers to in-season tournament final (1:43)

LeBron James racks up an efficient 30 points in just 23 minutes as the Lakers book a spot in the in-season tournament final vs. the Pacers. (1:43)

The NBA's inaugural in-season tournament has reached the championship match, with the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers vying for the NBA Cup and the winning team's players walking away with $500,000 each in prize money.

After all 30 teams were split into six groups and played four group stage games across November, eight qualified for the quarterfinals with four teams reaching the semifinals at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

The Pacers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 128-119 in Thursday's first semifinals contest, while LeBron James and the Lakers easily handled the New Orleans Pelicans 133-89 to book their spot for the final.

The championship game will be played on Saturday (watch on ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET) in Las Vegas.

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

Jump to a section
Semifinals | FAQ | Full Schedule

Lakers, Pacers advance to NBA Cup final in Las Vegas

The Lakers and Pacers will play for the NBA Cup after both advanced Thursday.

Saturday's title game will be a clash between one of the league's most storied franchises, led by superstar LeBron James, against an upstart Pacers squad trying to capture more national attention.

Indiana booked its spot with the win over the Milwaukee Bucks at T-Mobile Arena thanks to a stellar performance from Tyrese Haliburton, who finished with 27 points and 15 assists. The third-year guard has been one of the breakout stars during the tournament in which the Pacers are averaging nearly 133 points per game.

"We're playing the right way and we're shocking the world right now, we're going to continue to do that," Haliburton said. "And as long as we play the right way, we know we're going to be in every basketball game."

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and 10 rebounds for the Bucks, who kept up with Indiana before but faltering late in the fourth quarter.

"We've got to close it out in the fourth quarter, which is something we've done very well, we just couldn't pull it off tonight," Milwaukee coach Adrian Griffin said.

In contrast to that game, the Lakers had little trouble against the Pelicans. In front of a vocal pro-Lakers crowd, James dazzled in a 30-point effort that included three straight 3-pointers in the second quarter.

"We've got to finish our breakfast on Saturday," James said. "That's the most important thing."

Zion Williamson had a quiet night for the Pelicans, scoring just 13 points in the loss.

"I think I was too laid-back tonight and I just can't do that. And defensively I got to be better," Williamson said.

The Lakers and Pacers had gone undefeated in tournament play, which has included four group stage games and two knockout round victories in their respective runs to the final. Unlike the other tournament games, Saturday's championship will not count in the regular-season standings. -- ESPN staff

Championship (T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

Dec. 9 | Indiana Pacers vs. Los Angeles Lakers | 8:30 p.m. | ABC

NBA in-season tournament bracket

Top tournament news

LeBron dominates Pelicans, lifts Lakers into final
Giannis urges Bucks to 'be better' after tourney loss
Pacers advance to final after Haliburton's big night
Herring: The top 25 players in the in-season tournament semifinals
High roller: Pacers-Bucks has highest betting total on any game since '91
Source: No black city-edition uniforms for Lakers due to court's visual contrast
Lakers hold off Suns to reach semifinals amid controversial timeout call
'Our best offensive game': Giannis, Dame shine in Bucks' big win over Knicks
NBA teams can scout prospects at Vegas showcase during tourney weekend
Pelicans lean on 'trust' and healthy roster to eliminate Kings
Haliburton posts 1st triple-double, Pacers top Celtics to reach semis
ESPN Insiders: Dream final? MVP? The in-season tourney's big questions
NBA in-season tournament quarterfinal matchups set
Fantasy: Top streamers to target during final week of in-season tournament
Kings come back to stun Warriors, advance in tournament
'It was a little weird': Players irked by tourney's point-differential rule
Heat F Jimmy Butler sits out loss vs. Bucks with ankle injury
Hornets guard LaMelo Ball out weeks due to ankle sprain
Bontemps: Tournament provides added incentive for Haliburton, Pacers
309 total points! Pacers clinch first-ever QF spot in high scoring win over Hawks
LeBron James passes 39,000-point mark as Lakers advance to knockouts
Green, Thompson, McDaniels ejected in Wolves-Warriors fight
Myles Turner's dunk kicks off first NBA in-season tournament
Sources: Coaches to get paid for advancing in NBA in-season tournament
Lowe: How the bold new NBA in-season tournament courts came to fruition
NBA goes Hollywood to promote in-season tournament

FAQ (by Tim Bontemps)

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 knockout round scores and schedule

*All times are ET


Dec. 4 | Pacers 122, Celtics 112

Dec. 4 | Pelicans 127, Kings 117

Dec. 5 | Bucks 146, Knicks 122

Dec. 5 | Lakers 106, Suns 103

Semifinals (at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

Dec. 7 | Pacers 128, Bucks 119

Dec. 7 | Lakers 133, Pelicans 89

Championship (at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

Dec. 9 | Indiana Pacers vs. Los Angeles Lakers | 8:30 p.m. | ABC

In-season tournament group stage scores

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

Nov. 21

Magic 126, Raptors 107

Pacers 157, Hawks 152

Cavaliers 122, 76ers 119 (OT)

Suns 120, Trail Blazers 107

Lakers 131, Jazz 99

Nov. 24

Magic 113, Celtics, 96

Suns 110, Grizzlies 89

Knicks 100, Heat 98

Raptors 121, Bulls 108

Pacers 136, Pistons 113

Rockets 105, Nuggets 86

Bucks 131, Wizards 128

Kings 124, Timberwolves 111

Warriors 118, Spurs 112

Pelicans 116, Clippers 106

Nov. 28

Celtics 124, Bulls 97

Nets 115, Raptors 103

Cavaliers 128, Hawks 105

Bucks 131, Heat 124

Knicks 115, Hornets 91

Timberwolves 106, Thunder 103

Mavericks 121, Rockets 115

Kings 124, Warriors 123