The NBA will kick off its first In-Season Tournament on Friday, but some teams are going to have a far easier time in their designated groups than others. The league divided each conference into three groups of five based on last season's standings, but as we've seen so far, just because a team was good or bad last season does not necessarily mean they still are now. This is critical because the only surefire way to advance in the tournament will be to win your group. Only one wildcard team per conference will advance.
Now that we've gotten a look at all 30 teams through more than a week of basketball, we can better assess just how dangerous each group is and what that means for the teams involved. So below, we're going to rank the six groups from 1-6 in terms of how threatening the five teams pooled together are.
1. Western Conference, Group B
Let's quickly take stock of the talent we're working with here:
- The two MVP frontrunners at most books (Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic).
- Two more former MVPs (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) and another former Finals MVP (Kawhi Leonard). They're all on one team, and they're joined by a third-place MVP finisher (Paul George).
- Zion Williamson at the one time of year when he's usually healthy.
- Two other recent All-Stars (Kyrie Irving and Brandon Ingram) and one other soon-to-be All-Star (Jamal Murray) that we haven't even covered yet.
The top four teams in this group entered Wednesday with a combined record of 12-2. The one fear with this group is disinterest. Do the Nuggets care about winning the in-season tournament when they just won the championship? The Clippers are taking the regular season more seriously than they usually do, but there's a gap between that and going all-in on the tournament. Will the Pelicans be healthy? Will Irving as well? If we get this group at it's best, it's going to be a bloodbath.
2. Western Conference, Group C
Once again, we have one cellar-dweller at the bottom to acknowledge, but unlike Portland, San Antonio is at least pesky enough to bother the top teams. They've already beaten the Suns twice.
The other four teams all have guards capable of putting on incredible individual shows. Just imagine a round-robin clutch tournament between DeAaron Fox, Stephen Curry, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They're all going to get to duel in this group, and the bigs aren't exactly slouches here either. Watching Chet Holmgren play his first set of big games in the NBA against Domantas Sabonis, the Draymond Green-Stephen Curry pick-and-roll and Minnesota's pair of star big men should be a great indicator of where he stands now and where he might be when the playoffs arrive.
Having a few built-in rivalries doesn't hurt either. The Warriors and Kings just played probably the most fun series of the 2023 postseason. Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert have preexisting social media beef. This group doesn't quite match the talent of Group B, but it has the potential to be far more fun to watch.
3. Eastern Conference, Group B
There are two bad teams in this group, but they're two fun bad teams, which is exactly what we're looking for. Washington and Charlotte aren't contenders to win the group, but they can absolutely play spoiler with Jordan Poole scoring 50 on a random night or LaMelo Ball running one of those slower contenders off the court in transition. There isn't a group with five great teams, so five entertaining ones is a nice compromise.
The top three teams are more interesting here, especially given the history they share. The Bucks and Heat have played each other in three of the past four postseasons. The Heat and Knicks played each other last postseason and had a notorious set of playoff matchups back in the '90s. The Knicks and Bucks aren't bound quite so tightly, but there's a natural big-market vs. small-market rivalry right there.
The star power sells itself, but some of the real fun here is going to take place under the basket. The Knicks were the second-best offensive rebounding team last season. The Bucks and Heat ranked second and fourth, respectively, in defensive rebounding. In that sense, this is going to be the old school group of the tournament. Damian Lillard, Jalen Brunson and Jimmy Butler will put a bunch of points on the board, but these are going to be extremely physical games.
4. Western Conference, Group A
This group, on paper, looked like perhaps the best entering the tournament. Three A-List contenders, last year's surprise team and the league's most exciting rookie make West Group A games look like appointment television. Of course, the season hasn't exactly played out like that on the floor thus far.
The Suns have gotten two combined games out of Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. The Grizzlies have gotten no games out of Ja Morant, who will be out through the end of the tournament. The Lakers are already down several role players and generally look sluggish on both ends of the floor. Utah doesn't have a backcourt, and San Antonio is willingly punting away the point guard position in the name of developing Jeremy Sochan.
Maybe things get better (and healthier) as the tournament progresses. But this group isn't nearly as appealing as it could have been. One of these teams will emerge as a viable threat to win the whole thing in the knockout stage, but the games, as a whole, are going to be somewhat uninspiring.
5. Eastern Conference, Group A
This group has depth going for it. Detroit has looked surprisingly competent thus far this season, though its lack of shooting is going to be its undoing in any scenario in which teams do real scouting. The Hawks are your run-of-the-mill play-in-caliber team. Indiana can't stop a nosebleed, but the NBA's best transition offense is still a delight to watch. Simply put, there's not a bad team in the group.
Still, there's not a genuine championship contender within it either. Philadelphia just traded away its second-best player from last season in James Harden. Cleveland still hasn't gotten Jarrett Allen back, and Evan Mobley has struggled as a solitary big man. It's just hard to sell this group as particulalry compelling when it has no teams that figure to even reach the conference finals. Joel Embiid is the only major name here. The games will be better than they look on paper, but this is still one of the lesser groups.
6. Eastern Conference, Group C
If Boston doesn't win this group, something has gone horribly wrong. The Raptors can't score. The Magic can't shoot 3's. The Bulls choose not to shoot 3's. Brooklyn has found something pretty interesting with Cam Thomas and its endless army of defensive-minded wings, but that's an identity that takes time to develop.
Boston is the only true contender here for either the championship or the In-Season Tournament crowd. The Magic and Bulls have given them fits in past regular seasons, but if the Celtics take these games seriously, they should be the clear winner of this group and, given the relative lack of competition, the favorites to win the In-Season Tournament as a whole.