NBA In-Season Tournament predictions: Why Lakers’ LeBron James will win NBA Cup and MVP

NBA In-Season Tournament

With the chance to win an NBA Cup and an additional $500,000, has the NBA In-Season Tournament eradicated load management and regular-season apathy?

“Obviously the Cup will never supplant the Larry O’Brien,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “But it puts a whole lot of intensity within the game. These guys are aware of that. I definitely think it’s going to stick.”

NBA players and coaches expressed optimism that the tournament would generate buzz after 33 of the 66 Group Play games were decided within single digits.

The NBA will receive more clarity when it begins its knockout rounds, beginning with four quarterfinal matchups on Monday and Tuesday in home markets. The NBA will then host the semifinals (Thursday) and NBA Cup (Saturday) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Below are predictions on who will win the inaugural NBA Cup, the In-Season Tournament MVP and more.

Related: Updated NBA power rankings

NBA In-Season Tournament Quarterfinals predictions

East: No. 2 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics (Monday, 7:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

The Pacers have boasted the NBA’s most prolific offense (127.9 points per game), thanks to Tyrese Haliburton’s on-court leadership that calls for crisp ball movement and a fast pace. The Celtics have featured an eighth-ranked offense (116.7) by relying on their incumbent backcourt (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown) and a newly acquired versatile big man (Kristaps Porzingis).

The quarterfinal game may not produce as many fireworks. Haliburton missed Saturday’s game against the Miami Heat with an upper respiratory infection.

The Celtics have considered Porzingis day-to-day after missing the past three games with a low-grade calf strain. Regardless of either player’s availability or limitation, however, the Pacers and Celtics should manage just fine.

Indiana scored 144 points against Miami without Haliburton. Boston has won the past three games without Porzingis. If both return, this game will become even more compelling. In either case, though, the Celtics have more depth.

Prediction: Celtics 135, Pacers 128

West: No. 2 Sacramento Kings vs. No. 3 New Orleans Pelicans (Monday, 10 p.m. ET, TNT)

The Kings and Pelicans represent the teams most likely to embrace the NBA In-Season Tournament. They are both talented and have plenty of upside. Yet, they have not experienced playoff success, giving both teams additional motivation to experience winning on this stage.

Following a 2-5 start, the Kings have won eight of their last 11 games. After a 4-1 start and a subsequent five-game losing streak, the Pelicans have won seven of their last 11 games.

Overlapping injuries contributed to Sacramento (De’Aaron Fox) and New Orleans (CJ McCollum) playing erratically.

So did the teams’ dueling identities. Both the Kings and Pelicans boast a mix of veterans and youth that have plenty of potential but need more continuity. The slight edge points to the Kings given they challenged the Warriors to seven games in the first round last spring.

Prediction: Kings 116, Pelicans 109

East: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 New York Knicks (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

nba in-season tournament: milwaukee bucks

For New York, familiarity might breed contempt. For Milwaukee, familiarity might breed comfort.

Because of the In-Season Tournament, the Bucks play the Knicks for the second of five matchups this season, and are currently on a seven-game winning streak against them dating to Nov. 2021.

DateMatchup Time (ET)TV
Dec 5New York at Milwaukee7:30 p.m.TNT
Dec 23Milwaukee at New York12:30 p.m.NBA TV
Dec 25Milwaukee at New YorkNoonESPN
Apr 7New York at Milwaukee7 p.m.NBA TV
Nov 3Milwaukee 110, New York 105Damian Lillard 30 PtsBrunson 45 Pts

Milwaukee might be a work in progress with its defensive execution. But it has figured out the dynamic between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard just fine.

While Antetokounmpo ranks sixth in points per game (29.8) and seventh in rebounds (10.8), Lillard ranks 15th in points per game (25.8) and 11th in assists (6.8). Both players have gladly deferred to each other even during “Dame Time.”

Antetokounmpo has scored 8.2 points per game in the fourth quarter, while Lillard has averaged 7.5. He also scored 15 fourth-quarter points in the Bucks’ win over the Knicks last month, a possible omen for the next meeting.

Prediction: Bucks 121, Knicks 109

West: No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 4 Phoenix Suns (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, TNT)

nba in-season tournament, los angeles lakers

The Lakers have shown inconsistency with their health and chemistry. Yet, the Lakers have displayed dominance both in the In-Season Tournament (4-0) and at home (8-2).

Meanwhile, the Suns have struggled even more with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal playing in only one game together amid overlapping injuries.

The game should still be competitive with LeBron James and Durant squaring off like they’re playing in a Warriors-Cavaliers Finals again. After not facing off since Christmas Day in 2019 amid overlapping ailments, James and Durant unleashed epic performances for their first two matchups this season.

LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant 2023Lakers 100, Suns 95 (10/26/23)Lakers 122, Suns 119 (11/10/23)
James21 Pts – 8 Reb – 9 Ast32 Pts – 11 Reb – 6 Ast
Durant39 Pts – 11 Reb – 2 Ast38 Pts – 9 Reb – 5 Ast

With Beal missing the past nine games and counting with a lower back strain, however, the Lakers have relatively enough depth to absorb the Durant-Booker duo.

Prediction: Lakers 115, Suns 110


East: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics (Thursday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN)

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics

This matchup will preview the Eastern Conference Finals. This matchup will also offer an early referendum on whether the Bucks mostly helped themselves or the Celtics with their off-season moves.

Though Lillard has instantly elevated the Bucks’ offense, they have sorely missed Jrue Holiday’s perimeter defense. He has largely ensured the Celtics faring second overall in defensive rating, while Boston has produced prolifically on offense with its star backcourt (Tatum, Brown) and versatile big man (Porzingis).

The Bucks could eventually eclipse the Celtics with better health and more time together. In the meantime, though, Boston has more chips to cash in for an NBA Cup appearance. While the Bucks will struggle with containing the Celtics, Boston will make enough defensive stops to limit the Bucks’ crunch-time effectiveness.

Prediction: Celtics 117, Bucks 109

West: No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 2 Sacramento Kings (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN)

The Lakers and Kings will rekindle a chippy history that made for compelling playoff matchups in the early 2000s.

That matchup became riveting because of Shaquille O’Neal’s trash-talking, Robert Horry’s clutch 3 and Vlade Divac’s complaining. It seems unlikely the Lakers and Kings will emulate those elements, but they can still offer compelling theater.

James could continue to defy Father Time. Anthony Davis and Domantas Sabonis could have an epic big-man battle. And Fox could leave the Lakers feeling breathless with his lightning speed.

Though Kings coach Mike Brown has more experience than his former assistant (Lakers coach Darvin Ham), the Lakers have more veteran talent that will prevail with execution to overcome the Kings’ prolific athleticism and shooting.

Prediction: Lakers 112, Kings 108

NBA Cup: No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers (West) vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics (East) (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

The NBA would never say this publicly, but this is exactly the matchup it wants. In its inaugural In-Season Tournament, the NBA can feature the league’s best rivalry with two teams that are currently tied for the most league titles (17).

It can feature James on a championship stage after playing in nine Finals appearances, including eight in a row (2011-18). And it can feature one of the league’s next potential torchbearers (Tatum).

More importantly, the Lakers and Celtics would produce quality basketball. The Lakers have played exceptionally well in the In-Season Tournament despite their uneven play in traditional regular-season games.

The Celtics have the deepest team so far. With a motivated James and a pro-Laker crowd in Sin City, however, the odds point to the Lakers making their mark in history as the NBA’s first In-Season Tournament winner.

Prediction: Lakers 110, Celtics 105

NBA In-Season Tournament All-Tournament Team

(stats via NBA.com)

  • Guard – Sacramento Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: 36 points on 58.7% shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists
  • Guard – Milwaukee Bucks’ Damian Lillard: 30.0 points on 52.2% shooting overall and 48.4% from 3, 7.0 assists
  • Forward Phoenix’s Kevin Durant: 35.7 points on 58.6% shooting overall and 75% from 3, 7.7 assists, 7.3 rebounds.
  • Forward – Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James: 25.0 points on 60% shooting overall and 58.3% from 3, 8.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists
  • Forward – Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo: 25.5 points on 61.8% shooting, 8.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists.

Players that produced on winning teams should be rewarded. So even if Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Dallas’ Luka Doncic are viable candidates for their stellar In-Season tournament play, they couldn’t advance their respective teams to the knock-out stages.

Meanwhile, Fox, Lillard, Durant, James and Antetokounmpo all advanced to the knockout rounds while producing stellar numbers usually only seen on NBA2K.


LeBron James. He doesn’t enter the quarterfinals as the heavy favorite. But his competitive juices will flow more during single-elimination play.

Just like when he won four NBA championships, James will seize the moment by knowing when to make the big shot or make the timely pass.

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Threads.

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