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A Guide to the In-Season Tournament: It started two weeks ago but only begins now for the Toronto Raptors

The In-Season Tournament has finally arrived for the the Toronto Raptors! Can they conjure up some 2019 magic to become the first winners of the NBA Cup?

Toronto Raptors hold their victory parade after beating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The In-Season Tournament is finally here! Considering the tournament kicked off over two weeks ago, you’d think everyone would know the format and would be calculating playoff odds by now. As the Toronto Raptors prepare for their first game — against the Boston Celtics in Scotiabank Arena on Friday — the answer to the previous sentence is a fairly resounding NO!

To help you navigate the questions you will surely be asked on Friday, I’ve compiled everything you need to know to be the IST expert of your group. Let’s kick things off with the basics.

What is the format?

All 30 teams were drawn randomly within their conference, based on their 2022-23 regular season records, into six groups of five — three groups in each conference. Pot 1 had the conference’s three best records. Pot 2 had the conference’s 4th, 5th, and 6th best records. Pots 3 to 5 followed suit in descending order of records. This was done to prevent the Bostons and Milwaukees of the NBA from being grouped together and ensuring the Celtics could terrorize the Raptors.

The Raptors were drawn into East Group C which includes Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Orlando.

Each team will play the other teams in their group once — 2 at home, 2 on the road. While these games obviously have implications for the tournament, they also count towards regular season records. For example, the Raptors typically play the Celtics four times in the regular season since they’re both in the same division. The tournament game between Toronto and Boston will double as one of their four regular season matchups.

This answers the question about whether or not teams are playing extra games. No, they’re not. Toronto’s games against Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Orlando were going to happen anyway. If there was no tournament, Friday’s matchup between the Celtics and Raptors would have happened anyway — only without the secondary meaning of it being a tournament game.

What happens after the round robin games?

The top team from each group, plus two wild cards (the best second-place teams) advances to the knockout round (quarterfinals) for single-elimination games. The winners from the quarterfinals face each other while the losers are matched up for their final tournament games.

The 11 teams that do not qualify for the knockout round will also play two extra games. 10 of the 11 teams will be matched up and play each other within the conference, while the 11th team (or “bottom-finishing” as per from each conference will play a cross-conference game.

Sidenote: You’ll notice that every NBA team has 80 games on their schedules. The outstanding two games will come from the knockout round.

The championship game is the only one that will not count towards the regular season record (neither will any individual/team stats accumulated).

Wait, the tournament is already at the halfway point?

There have been 3 tournament days so far (November 3, 10, and 14) with 26 of the 60 round robin games already played. The Raptors are the only team to not play a tournament game yet. In fact, there are already 4 teams that have played 75% of their tournament games (Nets, Grizzlies, Mavericks, and Clippers), including 2 that are mathematically eliminated from reaching the knockout round (the Grizzlies and Clippers).

In Toronto’s group, the Celtics (1-0) have already defeated the Nets (2-1), who have previously defeated the Bulls (0-1) and Magic (0-1).

What does the winning team get?

Outside of bragging rights as the first ever winner of the NBA Cup*, each player on the winning team receives $500,000. Each of the teams that make the quarterfinals will also win a bit of prize money — runners-up get $200,000, semi-finalists $100,000, and quarterfinalists $50,000 per player.

Similar to what I’ll discuss in the next section, who does this benefit? The prize money isn’t much of an incentive for the star players that will be playing the bulk of the tournament minutes. It’s more of an incentive to the end-of-bench players......who probably won’t see the floor.

I’m not hating on the idea of the tournament, but some of the execution has been questionable. Remember when the conference winner of the All-Star game won home court advantage for the NBA Finals? That incentive forced players to actually play defense in the 4th quarter!

Why not offer the winning team a guaranteed playoff spot? That’s a great failsafe for teams that could fall victim to late-season injuries. At this point last season, the best record in the West belonged to........the Portland Trailblazers! Imagine if they rode that hot start to an NBA Cup championship (and guaranteed playoff berth)? Scoot Henderson probably doesn’t end up in Portland. Maybe Damian Lillard stays. Maybe the Raptors don’t get destroyed by Lillard and the Bucks last night. See? Isn’t that much more enticing than money?

How do we feel about the court & jersey designs?

As the great Mel Brooks said in Spaceballs, “Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made.” You knew the NBA wouldn’t stop at just offering money to the players — they had to try and appease the broadcast viewers and memorabilia-seeking fans. Judge for yourself, but they appear to have struck out on both!

As shocking as this may sound, Toronto’s court and jersey designs are not that bad when comparing to the rest of the NBA! The black and grey will be an eyesore for Raptors fans accustomed to the hardwood colour that has adorned the court for 29 seasons, but trust me, there have been much worse.

Maybe you like those designs, maybe you don’t. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I think it’s fair to assume that we all agree on the city jerseys: the NBA should really re-consider Nike as their supplier!

If you see anyone wearing any of these jerseys (outside of the Raptors one), please check on them and make sure they’re okay. This is like a gambling addiction: the best solution is to simply walk away!

When you tune into the broadcast tomorrow for the first ever In-Season Tournament game in Raptors history, just remember that neither team is as hard-working or unselfish or as unselfish/tough/mean/nasty as the Miami Heat!