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

Lakers hoist inaugural NBA Cup (0:33)

The Los Angeles Lakers lift the NBA Cup as the inaugural champions of the in-season tournament. (0:33)

The NBA's inaugural in-season tournament has concluded with the Los Angeles Lakers beating the Indiana Pacers 123-109 to lift the NBA Cup, with the team's winning players receiving $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. After defeating the New Orleans Pelicans and the Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, the Lakers and Pacers met on Dec. 9 in the final.

After scoring 24 points in the title game, LeBron James won tournament MVP to add to his long list of accolades which includes four NBA Finals titles.

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?

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LeBron, Lakers make history to winning first ever NBA Cup

The Lakers have added another title to their trophy case by winning the inaugural in-season tournament against the Pacers on Saturday in Las Vegas.

Tied with the Boston Celtics with 18 NBA Finals titles, the Lakers can now boast having the first ever NBA Cup as LeBron James scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on his way to winning tournament MVP honors.

Both the Lakers and Pacers entered the championship game undefeated in tournament play, going 6-0 across the group stage and knockout rounds.

Lakers big man Anthony Davis had a stellar performance against Indiana, finishing with 41 points and 20 rebounds. Tyrese Haliburton, who has been one of the breakout stars in tournament games, had 20 points and 11 assists for Indiana.

In front of a pro-Lakers crowd at T-Mobile Arena following the game, James lifted the tournament trophy at midcourt in front of celebrating teammates and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

"Records will be broken, but one thing that will never be broken is to be the first to do something," James said. "And we're the first champions of the in-season tournament, and nobody can ever top that, and it's great to do it with a historical franchise and just a great cast of funny, engaged, competitive men over here."

Unlike the other tournament games, the final does not count in the regular season standings.

-- ESPN staff

Championship (T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

Dec. 9 | Lakers 123, Pacers 109

NBA in-season tournament bracket

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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

*All times are ET


Dec. 4

Pacers 122, Celtics 112

Pelicans 127, Kings 117

Dec. 5

Bucks 146, Knicks 122

Lakers 106, Suns 103

Semifinals (at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

Dec. 7

Pacers 128, Bucks 119

Lakers 133, Pelicans 89

Championship (at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

Dec. 9

Lakers 123, Pacers 109

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