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The NBA Cup, the new tournament with group play and single-game playoffs

The results from the basketball competition will also count towards the regular-season standings

Copa NBA
Jeremy Sochan of the San Antonio Spurs tries to grab the ball from Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks in a game last week.Daniel Dunn (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con)
Miguel Jiménez

The NBA has invented a new competition to spice up the first quarter of the season. This Friday, the inaugural In-Season Tournament will get underway. The final will be played on Saturday, December 9 in Las Vegas, and the winner will take home the NBA Cup. The tournament is made up of two stages: group play and knockout rounds. What’s interesting about the competition is that all games, except the final, will also count towards the regular season standings, which defines the positions for the NBA playoffs in spring.

The regular season is long. Each of the 30 teams plays 82 games in less than six months (between October 24 and April 14), before the playoffs for the title begin. There are hardly any gaps in the calendar. At the same time, teams are aware that there is less interest in the first phase of the competition, when rankings have still not been defined. Given the tight schedule, the NBA has organized league games so that they also count for this new tournament.

It’s not clear which team will win the NBA Cup. The favorites are the Boston Celtics, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns, but the playing field is more level than in the traditional competition. NBA teams are evenly matched, meaning single-game playoffs can often be a coin toss. The group play stage (a single round, with four games for each team, two at home and two away) could throw up some surprises.

For the initial stage, the teams are divided into six groups: three from the Eastern Conference and three from the Western Conference. The groups were decided by a draw that took into account last season’s classification in the regular season. In the Eastern Conference, Group A includes the Philadelphia 76ers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who will likely compete for first place against weaker rivals (the Atlanta Hawks, the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons). The most evenly matched group in the Eastern Conference is Group B, which includes the Milwaukee Bucks (the favorites), who will have to get past the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. The other two teams in the group, the Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Hornets, have little chance of making it to the knockout round. In Group C, the Boston Celtics are the clear favorites. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, the Toronto Raptors, the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic.

In the Western Conference, the favorites in Group A are the Phoenix Suns, who play their home game against the Lakers, the second strongest in the group, given that the Memphis Grizzlies still do not have Ja Morant, who is suspended, and have started the regular season with five defeats. Group A also includes the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers. The most fearsome group is Group B. It includes the current NBA champions, the Nuggets, who are the undisputed favorite, and also features the Los Angeles Clippers, who have just signed James Harden; the Dallas Mavericks, who are on an unbeaten streak; the New Orleans Pelicans and the Houston Rockets. In Group C, which includes the Sacramento Kings, the Golden State Warriors, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, the field is more open.

In both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, the three group winners and the best second-placed team progress to the knockout round. During the quarterfinals on December 4 and 5, the best first-placed team in each conference faces the best second-placed team in a single-elimination game at home. The other two group winners face each other at the stadium of the team that has the best results in their group (if they have won the same number of games, the points difference and the highest score act as a tiebreakers). The NBA Cup semifinals, one for each conference, are played on December 7 in Las Vegas, as is the final, two days later. The NBA has made arrangements so that while those games are played, the eliminated teams advance in parallel with their regular season matchups.

Group stage games are played every Tuesday and Friday from November 3 to November 28 (with the exception of Tuesday, November 7, which is election day in several states, when there are no NBA games). This Friday the competition starts with seven games and in the following days there will be between five and 11 games for each “tournament night,” as the NBA has called them. The 30 teams each have a special design for the basketball court to highlight that these games are for the NBA Cup.

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