Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re diving deep into the inaugural NBA in-season tournament—from the league’s embrace of single elimination to the X factors of the semifinal round. This is the Kram Session.
Under Review: The In-Season Tournament Stakes Are Well Done
The inaugural knockout round of the NBA’s in-season tournament climaxed with a LeBron James masterpiece for the (old) ages. Weeks shy of his 39th birthday, LeBron tallied 31 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, and five steals to lead the Lakers to a 106-103 win over Phoenix and thereby clinch a spot in the semifinals in Las Vegas on Thursday night.
It was reminiscent of another three-point Lakers win in another high-stakes experiment just a few years ago. In May 2021, the NBA’s inaugural play-in bracket climaxed when LeBron sank a 3-pointer over Steph Curry with less than a minute left to play, as the Lakers qualified for the official postseason.
The NBA’s scriptwriters were savvy to use a LeBron-fueled boost for their two largest structural changes in years. We haven’t even arrived at the final four in Vegas yet, yet thanks to LeBron’s back-and-forth duel with Kevin Durant, a Cinderella run in Indiana, and a leaguewide amplification in early-season interest and intensity, it’s already clear that the NBA’s in-season tournament, like the play-in addition before it, is a triumph.
The two structural innovations share two key characteristics. First, they were both pushed by commissioner Adam Silver and thus given the imprimatur and full backing of the NBA and its TV partners. And second, they allow the NBA to embrace the excitement, stakes, and drama of single elimination without compromising the legitimacy of its ultimate annual championship.
In general, the structure of sports competitions requires a trade-off between fairness and excitement. The fairest way to decide the best team in an NBA season would be to switch to a balanced schedule and reward the regular-season champion with the Larry O’Brien Trophy, as European soccer leagues do. But that wouldn’t be the most exciting method most years, as many domestic European soccer seasons end in an anticlimax, with one team well ahead of the pack.
Conversely, the most exciting option would be for the NBA to turn every playoff round into a one-game event, like the NFL postseason or NCAA tournament. But that wouldn’t be a very fair way to determine a champion, as one bad night from 3-point range could sink a 60-something-win team. The March Madness victor is rarely the no. 1 overall seed because that tournament’s structure favors randomness and suspense.
Silver’s innovations, though, strive for a new balance to those two desired qualities: Both the play-in and IST offer fans a taste of single-elimination stakes while still allowing the league to retain the more drawn-out system it uses to reward the season-long champion each June.
Previously, the only single-elimination contests the league could offer were Game 7s—which were full of drama, yes, but also unpredictable and rare. The introduction of mandatory single-elimination stakes to the NBA calendar is an easy win because a single-elimination structure is inherently imbued with intensity. See: March Madness, the NFL playoffs, the World Cup and Champions League knockout rounds, every tennis major, and so many more competitions throughout the sports world.
Not every play-in or IST game will be close or memorable, like Charlotte’s two play-in losses by a combined 56 points. But they don’t all need to be, just some. The built-in stakes will take care of the rest, elevating good games to great and great games to legendary. LeBron’s duels with Curry (in the play-in round) and Durant (in the IST quarterfinals) can compensate for any number of ugly Hornets blowouts.
The initial IST quarterfinals provided two excellent contests, one good game, and one noncompetitive blowout, as the Bucks scorched the nets from distance to outpace the Knicks. That’s a perfectly fine ratio for year one. “The intensity of these games has been incredible,” Durant said after Phoenix’s loss on Tuesday. “I wasn’t a fan, but now I’m a huge fan of the in-season tournament.”
Durant isn’t the only one. The NBA’s new single-elimination games have seemed to win over players and fans alike, as they heighten the importance and impact of moments both major and minor, in markets big and small, from Diar DeRozan’s screams during free throws to Tyrese Haliburton’s star-making outburst in front of frenzied fans and an exuberant Pacers bench.
But will the players care though?!?! pic.twitter.com/DCnZrFgy0y— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 5, 2023
And for the IST to produce scenes like that, in front of crowds like that, in what has traditionally been the least engaging portion of the NBA season, constitutes immediate, rapturous success. The league has, to quote writer Royce Webb, artificially added “a new climax—an emotional peak, with higher stakes and an outcome full of suspense—weeks before the NBA’s big Christmas Day slate, two months before the All-Star Game, and six months before the ultimate postseason peak.”
Crucially, that “ultimate postseason peak” still exists in the same format as always; the IST isn’t replacing its crescendo, but rather adding a new one, earlier in the calendar. It’s just basic storytelling; everyone can get invested in stakes and a climax. As LeBron said on Tuesday in his postgame interview on TNT, “We have an opportunity to compete for something, so why not? You’ve got the greatest competitors in the world fighting for something, so let’s fight.”
Zacht of the Week: Five Players, Three Starters, One AD Trade
The IST’s Western final doubles as the Anthony Davis Bowl, as the Lakers and Pelicans meet four years after the blockbuster trade that sent the former no. 1 pick from New Orleans to L.A. And while Davis naturally still forms—along with LeBron—the backbone of the Lakers squad, what’s truly remarkable is just how much this Pelicans roster owes to the Davis deal, too.
Five key Pelicans players, including three members of the starting lineup, trace their transaction trees back to the Davis trade. As a reminder, the Pelicans’ ultimate trade return for Davis was Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, and three future first-round picks (one of which still hasn’t vested), which led, eventually, to this collection of players:
- Ingram, directly in the trade
- Dyson Daniels, selected with a Lakers pick
- Herb Jones, acquired (via a future Hawks pick) in a trade for a Lakers pick
- CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., acquired in a trade for Hart, among others
The Lakers had failed to even reach the playoffs in their first season with LeBron, before accelerating their return to contention with the Davis trade in 2019. But the Pelicans evidently kick-started their future plans that summer, too, both by selecting Zion Williamson no. 1 and by planting the roots of a trade tree that would bear the fruits of a deep, competitive roster.
A Graph Is Worth a Thousand Words
The Pacers rank first leaguewide in offensive rating but 28th in defense. The Bucks rank third in offense but 21st in defense. Both teams play at a top-five pace. Prepare for plenty of points in the IST’s Eastern final.
Take That for Data: The Winners and Losers of the IST’s On-the-Fly Scheduling
The NBA initially scheduled every team for 80 regular-season games, then added two more for this week after the conclusion of the in-season tournament’s group stage. The eight teams that qualified for the IST’s knockout round added two games against other qualifiers—the first a quarterfinal matchup, the second either a semifinal or a normal game against the other quarterfinal loser in their conference—while the other 22 teams each added a home and away game against other IST also-rans.
That on-the-fly process used a complicated algorithm to fill in this week’s schedule, with an emphasis on extra games against non-divisional opponents within the conference. But while that algorithm accounted for many factors, like geography and arena unavailability due to NHL games or concerts, it largely didn’t control for competitive balance. That means some teams should benefit from two extra easy games, while others are stuck playing two tough opponents in games that count toward the regular-season standings.
Here are the teams with the most difficult games added to their schedules, as measured by opponent point differential this season:
Hardest Games Added This Week
Poor Houston, stuck playing two of the West’s top three teams this week. And the Knicks’ presence here points to a (minor) negative by-product of the tournament: Because the Knicks qualified for the knockout round but lost in the quarterfinals, they added two games against the East’s elite. (So did the Pacers, but Indiana already won one of those games and still has a chance at lifting the inaugural NBA Cup.) Moreover, New York was already scheduled to face both the Bucks and Celtics four times this season, so now the Knicks have five matchups apiece against the Eastern favorites. The Knicks, for what it’s worth, are 0-4 this season against the Bucks and Celtics and 12-4 against all other teams.
Here are the teams with the easiest schedule additions:
Easiest Games Added This Week
|Jazz, Trail Blazers
An easy week probably won’t help the Bulls return to the playoff picture, but it could matter for the other teams on this chart. For instance, while the Timberwolves should feast on the bottom-feeding Spurs and Grizzlies, the Nuggets will play the Rockets (who already beat them twice this season) and Clippers; if Minnesota and Denver are battling for the West’s no. 1 seed next spring, the Wolves might have a crucial edge because of how the post-IST schedule shook out. Or maybe the Mavericks and Magic could use extra games against the Trail Blazers and Pistons, respectively, to stay in the top six of the conference standings and avoid the play-in round.
Fast Breaks: One X Factor for Each Remaining IST Team
As the NBA world turns its attention to Vegas for the next few days, the IST semifinalists’ stars are receiving their deserved hosannas. But for the Fast Breaks section this week, I wanted to highlight one unsung contributor on each of the four remaining teams.
1. Indiana Pacers: Buddy Hield
It wasn’t that long ago that Hield and the Pacers “started a dialogue to work on finding a potential trade” because the impending free agent hadn’t signed a contract extension. Shams Charania reported that Hield news near the end of September—and aren’t the Pacers glad they didn’t make a deal?
Hield scored 21 points on just 11 shots against Boston in the quarterfinal round, and he had a game-best plus-minus of plus-29. That performance was only the latest in a strong campaign, as Hield is a perfect fit for the Pacers’ high-flying, 3-point-launching, all-offense ethos.
Hield is such a perfect fit, in fact, that after coming off the bench for the Pacers’ first dozen games, he supplanted Bennedict Mathurin in the starting lineup. Developing the second-year Mathurin is important for Indiana’s future—but the pull of the Haliburton-Hield combination is just too strong in the present. Out of the top 20 players in 3-point attempts per game this season, Hield ranks third in percentage, behind only Haliburton and Steph Curry. On average, Haliburton and Hield are combining to make seven triples on 43 percent accuracy every game.
Hield should make for a fascinating free agent case this summer. On the one hand, he’s a career 40.2 percent shooter on 3-pointers, and he’s at 40.4 percent this season on high volume; since he entered the NBA, only Curry has made more total 3s. On the other hand, Hield is a subpar defender who’s never appeared in a playoff game. But for now, he’s playing as he always has, on a roster that encourages those tendencies, and the best team for Hield is the one he’s already on.
2. Milwaukee Bucks: Malik Beasley
Pinpointing an unsung Bucks contributor is a challenge because of the stars-and-scrubs nature of the current roster. That description might be an exaggeration, but not by much; only four Bucks rotation players have an above-average player efficiency rating this season, and all four are known, celebrated All-Stars. Even sixth man Bobby Portis is having a down year by his standards.
But Beasley fits the bill—like Hield—as an individual manifestation of his team’s broader strengths and weaknesses. As the Bucks’ fifth starter next to the Big Four, Beasley is woefully miscast as a perimeter stopper and thus part of the reason for Milwaukee’s defensive decline. But Beasley is a surefire shooter on the other end; he was 6-for-10 on 3s against the Knicks—part of a historically great 23-for-38 showing from his team—boosting his accuracy for the season to a sizzling 46 percent.
Beasley benefits from ample space playing next to Giannis and Lillard, of course—but even in that context, the free agent signee stands out. Among 55 players with at least 50 wide-open 3-point attempts this season, Beasley ranks second in accuracy, at 51 percent, behind only Boston’s Sam Hauser. He’s doing exactly what is asked of him on that end of the floor and helping elevate Milwaukee’s already formidable offense in the process.
3. New Orleans Pelicans: Jonas Valanciunas
Now almost fully healthy, the Pelicans roster overflows with high-caliber guards and wings. There aren’t enough minutes to go around: Against Sacramento on Monday, ace defender Dyson Daniels played only six minutes, while sweet-shooting rookie Jordan Hawkins didn’t play at all.
That depth and interchangeability give New Orleans both protections against further injuries and the flexibility to tinker with its lineups based on matchups. The Pelicans’ starting lineup was outscored by 12 points against the Kings, while all other lineups were plus-22.
But there’s one role player on the Pelicans who can’t be replaced, as Valanciunas offers a skill set distinct from everyone else on the New Orleans roster. His specific strengths might be a lot more useful in a matchup against the Lakers than they would have been against the Suns. Yet Valanciunas provides a potentially crucial option for coach Willie Green as an excellent rebounder and big, bruising presence near the rim.
Valanciunas’s individual stats are good but not spectacular: 14 points, nine boards, and two assists per game on 64 percent true shooting. But his on/off stats shine. Among Pelicans players with at least 200 minutes, Valanciunas has the best gap between on-court and off-court net rating. And the Pelicans’ offensive rating is 13.2 points higher with Valanciunas on the floor this season, which is a top-10 differential, per Cleaning the Glass. (Some of that disparity is due to shooting luck.)
Analysts have long salivated at the prospect of Zion-at-center lineups, but that configuration can only go so far given his defensive limitations. If the Pelicans are to make a meaningful playoff run this year, they’ll need a true center. And Valanciunas has quietly positioned himself to excel in that role.
4. Los Angeles Lakers: D’Angelo Russell
As with the Bucks, it’s not easy to identify an underappreciated player on the Lakers—especially after a quarterfinal win in which LeBron, Davis, and Austin Reaves were the only players to score in double figures. Yet despite an off night on Tuesday, Russell deserves credit for his broader performance this season, as he’s averaging 17 points and 6.5 assists per game, with an efficient 59 percent true shooting mark.
Those numbers might not be enough for Russell to remain a Laker for long. His $17.3 million salary makes him a likely candidate to be included in any sizable midseason trade the Lakers choose to make, and he’s not so dominant or irreplaceable that they would hesitate to swap him for an upgrade. The Timberwolves proved that point last season, as they’ve surged ever since trading Russell for the lower-scoring Mike Conley at the deadline. Russell didn’t even play in crunch time against the Suns, suggesting his shaky standing in the Lakers’ pecking order.
Yet at least for now, Russell is still a key member of a Lakers squad searching for consistent production around its two stars. Reaves might be the Lakers’ third-best player—behind LeBron and Davis—in terms of future potential and subjective ranking. But Russell has comfortably been the Lakers’ third-best player so far this season—third in points, PER, and BPM, among other all-encompassing stats.