NBA In-Season Tournament predictions: Sporting News expert picks for bracket, championship, MVP and more

The NBA doesn’t usually crown a champion in December, but this is no usual season.

A thrilling Group Phase saw 22 teams eliminated from the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. That leaves eight teams to battle it out in the tournament’s next stage, the Knockout Rounds, for an opportunity to take home the NBA Cup and some prize money.

Which team will come out on top? Who will be named MVP of the In-Season Tournament? And what’s one thing you should keep your eye on?

Before the Quarterfinals tip-off, The Sporting News’ NBA experts share their In-Season Tournament predictions.

MORE: Complete bracket for the NBA In-Season Tournament

NBA In-Season Tournament predictions

Gilbert McGregor, NBA Content Producer

Quarterfinals

  • Bucks over Knicks
  • Celtics over Pacers
  • Suns over Lakers
  • Pelicans over Kings

Semifinals

  • Bucks over Celtics
  • Pelicans over Suns

Championship prediction: Pelicans over Bucks

In-Season Tournament winner: At the beginning of the season, I tabbed the Pelicans as my pick to win the In-Season Tournament. Two months later, I’m standing on business and riding with New Orleans, a team that’s benefitting from things coming together at the right time.

The Pelicans’ star duo of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson are beginning to figure out the ins and outs of playing off one another, the team has gotten back to full strength at the perfect time and they have a unique blend of youth and experience. This is a roster suited to win a series of one-off tournament games.

In-Season Tournament MVP: Zion Williamson, Pelicans. Since Williamson was drafted first overall in 2019, the Pelicans have played in 10 postseason games. Williamson has logged zero postseason minutes. In his first opportunity to play on a big stage with something meaningful on the line, Williamson won’t disappoint.

One random thought: I picked them to go out in the Quarterfinals, but the arc of the Kings’ feel-good story that began last year still feels incomplete. It’s almost as if it wasn’t supposed to end with them being eliminated thanks to a generational player doing something that had never been done before.

Over the summer, Domantas Sabonis told our Kyle Irving that this tournament meant something to him and this team. If it isn’t my initial pick, it would be pretty cool to see a franchise that struggled for decades win the first-ever NBA Cup.

WATCH: STREAM THE NBA IN-SEASON TOURNAMENT LIVE WITH SLING TV

Zion Williamson

(Getty Images)

Stephen Noh, Senior NBA Writer

Quarterfinals

  • Knicks over Bucks
  • Celtics over Pacers
  • Suns over Lakers
  • Pelicans over Kings

Semifinals

  • Celtics over Knicks
  • Pelicans over Suns

Championship prediction: Celtics over Pelicans

In-Season Tournament winner: The Celtics have been the best team in basketball. Their net rating is tops in the league by a wide margin, and their 14-4 record is No. 1 as well. 

This is a team that doesn’t have a weak link on offense or defense. Their one issue is depth, which should be mitigated if they go all-out to win this thing. That commitment to winning was questionable during the early stages of group play, but they pulled out all the stops, including intentionally fouling Andre Drummond while up as much as 33 points in the fourth quarter of their last game. These guys are motivated to win.

In-Season Tournament MVP: Jayson Tatum, Celtics. He’s been the team’s best player for a while now, but he had a poor showing in the 2022 NBA Finals due in part to an undisclosed wrist injury. This is his opportunity for redemption in a championship game.

One random thought: This tournament has been a huge success thus far and extremely entertaining. I expect nothing less in the knockout stage. The variance goes through the roof.

While I picked the Celtics to win, this format does favor a boom-or-bust type of team. The Pacers are a dark horse and would be a feel-good underdog story. Their fast pace lends itself to some incredibly fun shootouts. I’ll be rooting for them. 

Jayson Tatum

(Getty Images)

Scott Rafferty, Senior NBA Editor

Quarterfinals

  • Bucks over Knicks
  • Celtics over Pacers
  • Lakers over Suns
  • Kings over Pelicans

Semifinals

  • Bucks over Celtics
  • Kings over Lakers

Championship prediction: Bucks over Kings

In-Season Tournament winner: The Celtics are going to be a popular pick, but Kristaps Porzingis’ calf injury worries me enough to side with the Bucks. They’re still far from a finished product, but the Bucks are starting to look more like the team we expected entering the season, even with Khris Middleton being in and out of the lineup. Plus, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are a tough duo to face in a single-elimination setting.

In-Season Tournament MVP: Damian Lillard, Bucks. Lillard led the way for the Bucks in the Group Phase, scoring 30.0 points per game on .522/.484/.971 shooting splits. If he maintains that sort of production and takes over a game or two in the clutch, it could give him the edge over Antetokounmpo.

One random thought: I’m excited to see what the Pacers can do. Tyrese Haliburton is looking like a dark horse MVP candidate so far this season, averaging Steve Nash-like numbers while leading the Pacers to the best offensive rating in the NBA. The Celtics destroyed the Pacers, 155-104, in the first meeting between the two teams this season. I’m sure the Pacers will be looking to get some revenge and go on a run.

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