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Kram Session: Previewing the Quarterfinals of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament

We’re taking a first look at the knockout round matchups of the inaugural IST. Plus, we’re examining the unusual trajectory of the Timberwolves, parsing Luka Doncic’s true value, and more.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re previewing the first knockout round of the in-season tournament, parsing the true value of Luka Doncic, examining the unusual trajectory of the West’s top team, and more. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: Previewing the In-Season Tournament Quarterfinals

The group stage of the inaugural in-season tournament came to a close on Tuesday, as the NBA adopted some features of other successful sports tournaments to boost the night’s entertainment product. The TNT broadcast showed the scores of simultaneous games at the top of the screen, like during March Madness; the night was ripe for scoreboard watching, like during the final group days of the FIFA World Cup.

And all the excitement thus far is just a warm-up act! Now we’re on to the single-elimination knockout rounds, with a pair of semifinal spots in Las Vegas on the line. Let’s offer a quick preview of the four quarterfinal games, which will occur next Monday and Tuesday, ranked from least compelling to most:

Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are technically the higher seed in this game, as they went 4-0 in the group stage while Boston dropped a game in Orlando. But would anyone predict that the 9-7 Pacers, who just lost to Portland at home, will win this game against the Celtics, whose 14-4 record is the best in the NBA? In a way, it’s the perfect scenario for the biggest Cinderella in the Eastern bracket: Truly, nobody believes in them.

The Celtics beat Indiana 155-104 at the start of November; that 51-point margin is the largest of any game this season. Tyrese Haliburton missed that blowout, and he’ll obviously make this rematch more competitive; however, as that first meeting showed, Boston should be able to score at will against Indiana’s 29th-ranked defense.

It’s on the other end, where Indiana’s no. 1 offense matches up against Boston’s no. 3 defense, that this game’s intrigue lies. Other than LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, the most fun individual matchups of the quarterfinal round might be Haliburton against Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, as the two lockdown defenders take on one of this season’s brightest breakout stars.

It speaks to the anticipated quality of these four quarterfinal contests that I ranked Celtics-Pacers last here because this game should be tremendously entertaining as long as Indiana keeps it closer than 51 points. Every Indiana game is a joy at this point, as the league’s fastest-paced team flies up and down the court. And Boston and Indiana rank second and fourth, respectively, in made 3-pointers per game, with a combined 30.8 makes on average.

New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings

The Pelicans defeated the Kings twice just last week, but both of those games came in New Orleans, and the first came on the second night of a back-to-back for Sacramento. Now, the Pelicans will have to win for a third time in front of a hostile crowd. New Orleans has never reached the conference finals of the actual NBA playoffs but is now just one win away from the IST’s version, as it would be one of two Western teams still standing if it can only win in Sacramento.

Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram combined for 105 points on 62 percent shooting across those two wins, and the Kings will need to slow down the Pelicans duo to have a chance of turning the tables. On the other end, De’Aaron Fox can cement his breakout with a strong performance that lights the beam and clinches a trip to Vegas: The Kings guard ranks sixth in points per game, with an average of 29.8. The matchup between Fox and the Dyson Daniels–Herb Jones defensive duo will be the Western Conference’s answer to Haliburton against Holiday and White.

Or perhaps Zion will be the left-handed All-Star who enjoys the national TV spotlight in this quarterfinal matchup. Given that Zion was injured for both the Pelicans’ playoff trip in 2022 and their play-in loss in 2023, this will be his highest-stakes game since Michigan State upset top-seeded Duke in the 2019 Elite Eight.

New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee beat New York by five points earlier this month, which is what ultimately gave the Bucks the top seed in the Eastern knockout rounds and the Knicks the wild card. But New York may win the rematch if the teams’ shooting luck evens out because in that game, the Bucks made 20 of 39 3-point attempts while the Knicks shot just 10-for-39 from distance.

Also in New York’s favor: The Bucks had no answer for Jalen Brunson, who scored 45 points in that game; RJ Barrett didn’t play but is now healthy; and the Bucks’ Jae Crowder, who played a key role with 14 points in 24 minutes, is now injured.

That said, the Bucks will be at home, and the Lillard-Middleton-Giannis-Lopez core has had another month to jell since that first game against New York. That quartet looked wonderfully in sync on Tuesday, as Milwaukee staved off Miami to finish its undefeated group stage run.

In general, it will be interesting to see how the eight quarterfinal coaches treat the single-elimination games: Will they extend their starters’ minutes? Will they shorten their rotations as in a Game 7? But the Bucks might offer the most fascinating version of those questions, mainly because of Middleton, who’s played more than 24 minutes in just one game all season (29 in a loss to Boston last week). How long can he go in a knockout game? The answer might determine whether Milwaukee advances to the semifinals in Vegas—and whether we’ll get a potential conference finals preview against Boston.

Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers

The greatest star wattage of the quarterfinals will be concentrated in Los Angeles, naturally: LeBron! Durant! Davis! Booker! These are four of the top dozen players in the league.

The Lakers won the first meeting between these teams, 122-119 in Phoenix, as LeBron scored 32, Durant scored 38, and L.A. overcame a fourth-quarter deficit thanks to a surge from Cam Reddish. Bradley Beal, now injured, played in that game; Devin Booker, now healthy, did not.

The key question for this game—other than the health of Durant, who’s missed two games in a row but is reportedly close to returning—is whether the Lakers have magic IST powers. They’re 4-0 in tournament games, with a plus-18.5 point differential per game; in nontournament games, however, they’re 6-8, with a minus-7.6 point differential.

More seriously, this game’s narrative implications practically write themselves. The last time LeBron faced Durant in a game with high stakes was the last game of the 2018 Finals. Will we get a late-game isolation matchup between the two living legends, who are both excelling despite their advanced age? Which team’s role players—like Reddish in the first meeting—will show up to support the stars? And what will it mean for the legacy of Booker, who’s currently on fire in his “Point Book” role, if he ends up outright stealing the show?

Zacht of the Week: $58.2 Million

The Timberwolves are in an unusual, fascinating position—and I don’t just mean first place in the West, even though that is an unusual perch for this typically woebegone franchise.

On the one hand, the Wolves are following the classic trajectory of a team on the rise: After missing the playoffs three seasons in a row, they lost in the first round in 2022 and 2023, and they now seem ready to play deeper into the spring. But on the other, they might not have the patience to continue on that course of slow, steady improvement. That’s the truly unusual position: The upstart Wolves are on an accelerated course, and they need to win right now. Last month, the Timberwolves ranked fifth in our All In-dex rankings; they’re up to third now, after extending Jaden McDaniels.

I don’t mean to (purple) rain on the Minnesota parade—it is genuinely exciting to see this group’s strides, and with a strong regular-season résumé and a proven ability to challenge the Nuggets, they are bona fide contenders. Their all-in gamble looks a lot better now than it did a year ago. But this season already might be the last in which their current core can remain intact and financially viable. It’s instructive to examine just how much larger the team’s salary commitments are about to get:

Big Timberwolves Salaries (in Millions)

Player 2023-24 2024-25 Increase
Player 2023-24 2024-25 Increase
Rudy Gobert $41.0 $43.8 $2.8
Karl-Anthony Towns $36.0 $49.7 $13.7
Anthony Edwards $13.5 $35.5 $22.0
Naz Reid $13.0 $14.0 $1.0
Jaden McDaniels $3.9 $22.6 $18.7
Total $107.4 $165.6 $58.2

(In this chart, next season’s numbers for Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards are estimates based on the projected cap figure. Moreover, Edwards’s number could increase by another $7 million or so if he makes an All-NBA team this season and qualifies for a higher cap figure.)

Towns’s supermax extension kicks in next season. So does Edwards’s rookie max. McDaniels is scheduled for a huge, deserved raise as well. Factor in small raises for Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid, and the Wolves are set to add roughly $58.2 million in payments to their big-money quintet next season, pushing their overall payroll north of $165 million (or north of $170 million if Edwards earns All-NBA honors this season) just for those five players; $107.5 million of that total is earmarked for three centers.

In other words, before they add any point guards, fill out their roster, or think about re-signing key free agents like Mike Conley Jr. and Kyle Anderson, the Wolves will already push hard toward the luxury tax and second apron lines. The team has few resources to add cheap talent after trading so many draft picks to Utah in the Gobert deal. Are the team’s new owners willing to spend like Steve Ballmer or Joe Lacob to round out a roster?

Because if not, Minnesota management will have to confront hard decisions that might make the roster worse, essentially just as the team has gotten good enough to contend. It’s not as if the Timberwolves will break up their core completely; Edwards alone is young and talented enough that he should buoy the franchise for years to come. But Minnesota’s spending spree means there’s an aberrant sense of urgency that will hang over the rest of this encouraging surge. They probably can’t continue to improve just one step at a time; they need to take several leaps all at once.

A Graph Is Worth a Thousand Words

A year ago this week, our Michael Pina declared that the Bulls were “the NBA’s most depressing team.” They’ve somehow become even more depressing; now, they’re getting blown out even when their best players are on the court.

(This graph is updated through Monday’s games. Also, don’t show Michael, an irrational Clippers believer, how well the pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George fares on this graph. It’ll just encourage him.)

Take That for Data: Parsing Fact From Fiction in Luka Doncic’s On/Off Statistics

A nerdy corner of NBA Twitter was thrown into a tizzy this week, thanks to a long thread about why Doncic is “the most OVERRATED player in the NBA.” The analysis, from an account called @sports_mediocre whose bio says they’re a “former NBA analytics associate,” detailed why the Dallas star’s “impact on winning is far, far less than it appears.”

This thread made enough waves that my editor asked me to explore its claims and try to figure out if the four-time first-team All-NBA honoree is actually “the most OVERRATED.” Let’s dive in.

Some of the analysis, particularly on the offensive side of the court, is frankly nonsensical. For instance, the thread uses on/off data to argue that Doncic’s offensive contributions are overrated because the Mavericks have slightly more assists and fewer turnovers with Doncic off the floor. But those numbers are clearly cherry-picked—the Mavericks offense as a whole is usually much better with Luka on the court. When Doncic plays, Dallas typically shoots more efficiently, takes more free throws, and generates way more corner 3-pointers, per Cleaning the Glass.

Moreover, the thread says that Luka’s impressive box score stats are misleading because he benefits from a form of “stat padding” that is “harmful to winning”: taking a lot of technical free throws despite being a mediocre free throw shooter. Yet this complaint is so minor as to be almost meaningless. Since the start of Luka’s career, he’s attempted 57 total technical free throws, per PBP Stats, which comes out to about 11 per 82 team games.

So even if a 74 percent free throw shooter like Luka stole all those attempts from an 89 percent free throw shooter like Kyrie Irving, the difference comes out to about 1.7 extra points. One point seven. Over a full season.

No, Luka isn’t stat padding or meaningfully hurting his team by sacrificing 1.7 points per season. Rather, he’s one of the top offensive creators in the league—the rare player who can carry a large offensive burden while scoring efficiently and creating open looks for others.

However, the defensive criticisms in the thread are more valid. The on/off data is compelling here; for instance, in five out of Luka’s six seasons, per CtG, opponents have scored at a higher rate with him on the floor. They’ve generated more transition opportunities with him on the floor, too, because of his penchant for arguing with refs instead of sprinting back on defense.

Luka has the size of the playmaking wings who dominated postseasons in the 2010s, like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard, but because of his defensive limitations, his impact might be more akin to that of a smaller playmaking guard. Even the advanced metrics that love Doncic—and they do love him; all the good public ones consider him a top-10 player—acknowledge he’s a minus defender, albeit still valuable because his offensive positives outweigh his defensive negatives by a wide margin.

When a team’s best player can’t reliably defend, it imposes a ceiling on that team’s playoff aspirations, especially when opponents hunt weak defenders—like Luka!—in the postseason. The Rockets and James Harden peaked by reaching the conference finals. Ditto Trae Young and the Hawks, and Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers.

That’s not to say that such a ceiling is unbreakable. (If not for a historic shooting fluke, Harden’s Rockets would have defeated Durant’s Warriors to reach the Finals.) And Doncic himself has been a remarkable playoff performer, averaging 32.5 points per game in the postseason—second all time, behind Michael Jordan—on excellent efficiency. Still just 24 years old, he has already upset his way to one conference finals appearance and might have had more playoff success if he wasn’t matched up against Kawhi in the first round in two of his three playoff trips.

Yet unless he improves as a defender to become more like those apex wings than those smaller one-way guards, his path to a title will undoubtedly be more difficult. In the 21st century, the Warriors with Steph Curry are arguably the only team that won a title when its best player was a small guard, which is a testament to Curry’s incredible supporting casts, his own underrated defense, and just how much his unprecedented offense breaks the scale.

It’s not just Luka who faces this issue in the current NBA. It’s also Lillard, now with the Bucks, who have experienced an ugly defensive slide since his acquisition. It’s Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox, and Ja Morant if their teams are ever to make deeper playoff runs. And it’s the young up-and-comers like Tyrese Haliburton, who’s a playmaking sensation but will certainly be targeted on defense if the Pacers qualify for the playoffs this year.

So no, I don’t agree that Luka is the NBA’s most OVERRATED player. But I do think that he—like every dynamic, high-scoring, team-leading guard in the NBA—has work to do if he wants to be the best player on a title team. That’s an elite club, and it’s mostly filled with two-way stars.

Fast Breaks

1. Sunny weather but a partly cloudy horizon in Phoenix

The Suns are hot (sorry), with seven consecutive wins since Booker returned from injury. Read more about Booker here, but note that the bigger questions about this team remain as salient as ever, as injuries have prevented him, Durant, and Beal from sharing the court for even a single second this regular season.

The latest concern is a sore foot for Durant, which is unfortunately not a surprise for a 35-year-old who hasn’t played in more than 55 games in any season since 2018-19, his last in Golden State. The early 2023-24 season has taken a tremendous toll on Durant; his 36.9 minutes per game rank fourth leaguewide.

That’s atypically high for a player his age: Other than LeBron in 2021-22, the last player 35 or older to log so many minutes was Michael Jordan in his final Wizards season, more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, before Durant started missing games, I asked Suns coach Frank Vogel if Durant’s heavy workload was a concern, given his age and injury history. “No,” Vogel replied. “No concern there.”

But there should be, even if Durant is likely to return soon, because Phoenix needs him to get through the season unscathed. The Suns’ stars-and-scrubs structure means they’re doomed without those stars: Phoenix has a minus-24.9 net rating without either Booker or Durant on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, with a putrid 93.2 offensive rating in those minutes.

2. Gritting your teeth and grinding to a halt

Why are the Grizzlies, who famously went 20-5 without Ja Morant in the 2021-22 regular season, now struggling so dearly while their star guard is serving his 25-game suspension? It seems that Memphis’s successful draft and development machine, which churned out many useful role players for a few years, couldn’t maintain its torrid pace.

Nine Grizzlies played at least 500 minutes without Morant in 2021-22, per PBP Stats, with low-leverage minutes removed. Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, and John Konchar are still on the team, but the other six haven’t played a single minute for Memphis this season. Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke are injured, and De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and backup point guard extraordinaire Tyus Jones have all scattered to other teams.

That attrition is apparently too much for the Grizzlies to handle, as they’ve proved unable to compensate for the losses of those crucial Morant backstops. Young fill-ins like Ziaire Williams, David Roddy, and Jake LaRavia have all face-planted this season; the only Memphis rotation players with a positive box plus-minus are Bane and Santi Aldama. (A down year from Jackson, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, hasn’t helped.)

Lately, the 3-13 Grizzlies haven’t even been competitive: They’ve lost their past three games by 20, 21, and 22 points, which ties them for the most consecutive 20-point losses for any team in the 21st century. The 2021-22 team went 20-5 without Morant; at this rate, the 2023-24 version might be lucky to get to 5-20 by the end of his suspension.

3. They’re winners, but in-season tournament losers nonetheless

To close out today’s column, let’s loop back to the IST by raising a toast to the Cavaliers, Magic, Nets, and Timberwolves, all of whom finished 3-1 in group play but didn’t qualify for the knockout rounds due to point differential tiebreakers.

These teams messed up only once, but that one bad night cost them dearly. The Magic, for instance, lost their first group game, then won three in a row, including a 17-point rout of the Celtics. They’re a young team on a hot streak—like the Pacers, the perfect archetype of what the IST can showcase. And yet Orlando’s point differential wasn’t strong enough, so the team fell in a three-way tiebreak.

That’s a darn shame. But them’s the breaks in the small sample and accelerated timeline of the inaugural competition. Over the full NBA season, only 10 teams are eliminated from playoff contention at the end of 82 games; in the in-season tournament, 22 teams are eliminated after just four games.