If we learned anything about the group stage of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament, it is that this event was a major success. All 30 teams bought into the idea of playing for something early on in the season and, as a result, we were gifted some high-level games with playoff-like atmospheres in arenas across the league. Not to mention, some interesting styles of play in terms of running up scores were demonstrated as a result of the point differential tiebreakers. Now, just eight teams remain, with several stars emerging as favorites for the very first NBA In-Season Tournament MVP.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, and Boston Celtics are the eight teams that have advanced to the quarterfinals, all of which won at least three group stage games to get to this point. The Kings, Lakers, Bucks, and Pacers are the only four teams that still own a perfect tournament record.
One of these teams listed above will ultimately walk away with the first-ever NBA Cup, but there is much more on the line. Aside from the prize money, there is definitely a pride factor that comes into play with being named the MVP of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.
LeBron James clearly wants to this win this award, as he has carried the Lakers to a perfect 4-0 record. Then there is Tyrese Haliburton, who has the Pacers at 4-0 and has ben virtually impossible to stop on the offensive end of the court given his playmaking abilities. Three other notable All-Stars find themselves in the chase for the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP, which is why their success in the group stage should carry over to the knockout rounds.
Winning matters when determining who receives the MVP honors for the tournament, which is why all five of these players listed below still have a lot to play for. Here's a look at the top candidates for the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP honors based on their play so far.
Honorable mentions: Kevin Durant (Phoenix Suns), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans), Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
1. Tyrese Haliburton – Indiana Pacers
NBA In-Season Tournament Stats: 4 games, 28.5 points, 13.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 49.3 FG%, 36.7 3P%
Going from emerging star to All-Star a season ago, Tyrese Haliburton has taken the next step in his career in terms of becoming a superstar point guard in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers went 4-0 in East Group A, taking down the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers to advance in the tournament. There is a reason the Pacers are the best offensive team in the league right now, and that is because of the way Haliburton runs Indiana's offense.
Haliburton leads all players by a very wide margin in the tournament with 13.5 assists per game and has only turned the ball over 11 total times in four games. That is a 4.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for Haliburton, which is why he sits at the top of the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP rankings right now.
Aside from his playmaking and facilitating duties, Haliburton has grown as a scorer. The Pacers guard ranks 12th in scoring during the tournament and has shot 46.7 percent from deep, tied for the fourth-best percentage out of all players during the group stage. Given the fact that nobody saw the Pacers emerging as a team that could win the NBA In-Season Tournament, Haliburton deserves a lot of MVP consideration.
2. LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
NBA In-Season Tournament Stats: 4 games, 25.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 60.0 FG%, 58.3 3P%
If there is one player in the league who 100 percent wants to win NBA In-Season Tournament MVP, it is LeBron James. This would be yet another accolade for James to add to his extensive collection, and it just seems fitting that he would win the award while leading the Lakers to the championship in this inaugural tournament. At 38 years old, LeBron continues to lead his team and is doing so this season with Anthony Davis as the Lakers' only other reliable contributor.
Through four tournament games, James is 14-of-24 (58.3 percent) from three-point range with none of his makes or misses coming from the corner. Like Haliburton, LeBron led the Lakers to a 4-0 record in West Group A, which many have called the easiest tournament group seeing as three of the teams currently reside near the bottom of the league's rankings.
The Lakers should not be in a position to contend for the NBA Cup given their recent struggles, yet James has stepped up during each tournament game in order to lift Los Angeles to a win. Whether it is scoring, rebounding, or passing, James has done it all. Nobody should be surprised to see LeBron give it his all when the quarterfinals roll around, especially since he is going up against Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and the Phoenix Suns.
3. De'Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings
NBA In-Season Tournament Stats: 3 games, 36.0 points, 8.7 assists, 8.0 rebounds, 48.7 FG%, 38.5 3P%
Out of all the players in the league, De'Aaron Fox definitely had the best resume coming out of group play games. The only reason why he is not ranked ahead of Haliburton and James is because of the fact that he only played in three tournament games. In those three games, though, Fox recorded at least 29 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in every game.
Fox's 36.0 scoring average leads all players who played in at least three group play games, and the Kings are rolling right now. Sacramento went 4-0 in West Group C, picking up a much-needed victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night despite trailing by as many as 24 points in that game. Fox did go 9-of-17 from the free-throw line in this game, but he managed to record 29 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists against the Warriors to lead Sacramento into the knockout stage of the tournament.
We all know what Fox is capable of doing, as he was named the NBA's Clutch Player of the Year last season. A true All-NBA talent who is the face of the Kings, Fox may finally have his team trending in the right direction after their shaky start to the season.
4. Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns
NBA In-Season Tournament Stats: 3 games, 30.7 points, 8.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 55.4 FG%, 50.0 3P%
The Phoenix Suns are the only 3-1 team from the Western Conference in the semifinals of the NBA In-Season Tournament. Their lone loss was to the Los Angeles Lakers, a game Devin Booker did not play in. The math is quite simple here: When Booker plays, the Suns win. This is almost 100 percent accurate for the entire regular season as well, given the Suns are 8-1 with their superstar guard healthy.
Booker is one of 11 players in the league to average at least 30 points per game through the group stage of the tournament, and his 8.3 assists per game mark ranks ninth. If there is one player who we can count on in big moments, especially during the tournament, it is Booker. His recent game-winning triple against the New York Knicks is evidence of this, and the Suns need Book healthy just as much as they need Kevin Durant.
Phoenix plays the Lakers in the quarterfinals of the tournament. Should they advance to Las Vegas for the semifinals and possibly the championship game, it will be hard to overlook Booker's accomplishments. This game between the Suns and Lakers is essential a mini-battle of LeBron vs. Booker for the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP award.
5. Damian Lillard – Milwaukee Bucks
NBA In-Season Tournament Stats: 4 games, 30.0 points, 7.0 assists, 52.2 FG%, 48.4 3P%
While Giannis Antetokounmpo may get all the attention for the Milwaukee Bucks, Damian Lillard has been the driving force for this team throughout the group stage of the NBA In-Season Tournament. Lillard currently leads the Bucks in scoring during the tournament and has not recorded less than 27 points in a tournament game.
The Bucks went 4-0 in group play, taking down the New York Knicks and Miami Heat on their way to the quarterfinals. Now, Milwaukee will once again face the Knicks in the knockout stage, with Lillard looking to replicate his previous 30-point performance against New York.
Lillard has gone 15-of-31 (48.4 percent) from deep during tournament games and has been the Bucks' primary facilitator with a 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Bucks were picked by many when this tournament began to win it all, and they are now three victories away from doing so. It is going to be Dame Time in the quarterfinals with a trip to Vegas on the line, which is why Lillard has put himself in a position to win the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP.