Back in July, the NBA unveiled their format, groups and schedule for the league’s inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament. Fast forward four months later and the tournament is finally upon us, along with more information about how the event will actually play out.
The Minnesota Timberwolves will begin their quest to claim the first ever NBA Cup by battling Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs in their opening group play game on Friday at 7 PM CT.
For those wondering how it works and how the Wolves fit into the chaos of it all, let’s break it down.
The Groups and Group Play Schedule
First and foremost, all 30 NBA teams will participate in the tournament. The teams are broken down into six groups of five teams, with three groups (A, B and C) in each conference.
Here is a look at the groups:
Western Conference Groups
- Group A: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers
- Group B: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets
- Group C: Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs
Eastern Conference Groups
- Group A: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons
- Group B: Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets
- Group C: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic
Here is the NBA’s explanation for how the groups were formulated:
Before the drawing, each team was placed into a “pot” based on its record from the prior regular season (2022-23). In each conference, one team from each pot was randomly selected into each of the three groups in that conference. The pots were as follows:
Pot 1: The teams with the three best prior-season records in a conference.
Pot 2: The teams with the fourth- through sixth-best prior-season records.
Pot 3: The teams with the seventh- through ninth-best prior-season records.
Pot 4: The teams with the 10th-through 12th-best prior-season records.
Pot 5: The teams with the 13th-through 15th-best prior-season records.
The Wolves will play four ‘group play’ games — one against the each of the four teams in their group.
Here is the schedule for those games, all of which will air on Bally Sports North:
- Friday, Nov. 10 at 7 PM CT — at San Antonio Spurs
- Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 9 PM CT — at Golden State Warriors
- Friday, Nov. 24 at 7 PM CT — vs Sacramento Kings
- Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 7 PM CT — vs Oklahoma City Thunder
Based on how the five teams in the group perform, one will win the group and advance to the knockout round. If there is a tie atop the group standings, here is the tiebreaker order:
- Head-to-head record in the Group Stage
- Point differential in the Group Stage
- Total points scored in the Group Stage
- Regular season record from the 2022-23 NBA regular season
Keep in mind that the Wolves currently have 80 scheduled regular season games, but need to play at least 82 regular season games. So, that means that regardless of how the Timberwolves perform in the group stage, they will play two additional games. I’ll get to that in a minute.
For teams that advance to the knockout rounds...
Beyond the six group winners, one wildcard team will advance from each conference, bringing us to eight quarterfinalists. The wildcard teams will be those with the best records of any non-group winner; if there are multiple second-place teams in one conference with the same record (Ex: West Group A second place and West Group B second place both go 3-1), the team that advances to the quarterfinals will be determined by the same tiebreaker order as above (starting with #2). So, there is incentive for the Timberwolves to run up the score in any games they hold big leads in.
Quarterfinals (Regular Season Game #81 for those eight teams)
Two quarterfinal games (one east, one west) will be nationally televised and played on Monday, December 4 with the other two coming the following day, Tuesday, December 5. The games will take place in the market of the higher (better) seed, based on group play record. Again, ties will be broken based on the system above.
Teams who lose in the quarterfinals will play the other quarterfinal loser from their conference to satisfy the 82-game season requirement. So if the Wolves make the quarterfinals and lose, they’d play the loser of the other Western Conference quarterfinal game. That game would take place on Friday, December 8 with home court for that game being decided by, you guessed it, the tiebreaker above.
Winners of the quarterfinals will head to Las Vegas.
Semifinals (Game #82)
The semifinal games will take place on Thursday, December 7.
A champion will be crowned on Saturday, December 9.
The unfortunate aspect of making the In-Season Tournament championship is that the two finalists will end up having played 83 games to everyone else’s 82. The league hopes the prizes make up for it.
Here are the payouts for each player and member of the coaching staff, based on where the team finishes in the knockout rounds:
- Lose in quarterfinals: $50,000
- Lose in semifinals: $100,000
- Lose in finals: $200,000
- Win finals: $500,000
Standings and Stats
Quarterfinal games and semifinal games will count as regular season games for season-long statistics and standings, but the finals will not. So winning or losing the finals will have no bearing on playoff seeding.
For teams that miss the knockout rounds...
So, we know how knockout round finalists will satisfy the 82-game requirement, but you’re probably wondering — how do the teams who miss the cut?
If the Timberwolves do not advance to the quarterfinals, they and the 21 other teams will each play two additional games that count towards regular season standings and statistics. This is why you see a break in the schedule the first week of December, because those games are not yet scheduled.
Here is the NBA’s explainer for how those games will be scheduled and played:
A formulaic approach will determine the matchups for these games using the Group Play standings in each conference (5th-15th).
Two of the 22 games will be scheduled cross-conference since there will be an odd number of teams in each conference that do not advance to the Quarterfinals. These cross-conference games will be scheduled between bottom-finishing teams in the Group Play stage subject to travel constraints, and no team will play more than one of its two games cross-conference.
The other 20 games will be scheduled within conference featuring teams that are otherwise scheduled to play each other three times over the course of the season wherever possible.
Based on the league’s explanation, Minnesota is likely to play one of these teams in the West they are current scheduled to play three times:
- Golden State Warriors
- Houston Rockets
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Phoenix Suns
- Sacramento Kings
- San Antonio Spurs
A Very Brief Preview and Tournament Odds
Group C Action So Far
While the Timberwolves have yet to tip off their group stage play, the Warriors and Thunder got Group C action underway last Friday. Warriors star Steph Curry got a layup to fall with 0.2 seconds left, marking the Dubs’ second straight win by way of a basket with 0.2 seconds left. So Golden State is 1-0, while Oklahoma City is 0-1 in Group C play.
If Minnesota can start 2-0 with wins in San Antonio on Friday and in San Francisco on Tuesday, there is a very strong likelihood they advance to the knockout rounds, because OKC is already 0-1 and the Kings are still without star point guard De’Aaron Fox (ankle sprain).
Odds (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
The Timberwolves are +2500 to win the tournament, which are the 10th shortest odds.
Golden State were the favorites going in, but are strong favorites now that they’ve started 1-0.
- Warriors (-110)
- Wolves (+340)
- Spurs (+1000)
- Thunder (+1400)
Minnesota’s big three are all represented on the tournament MVP odds board:
- Anthony Edwards (+4000)
- Karl-Anthony Towns (+6000)
- Rudy Gobert (+30000)
We’ll provide coverage of the Wolves throughout their In-Season Tournament journey, but you can stay up-to-date with the rest of the league’s performance here.