2023 In-Season Tournament

In-Season Tournament MVP Ladder: LeBron's efficiency leads Lakers to Knockout Rounds

Opposite ends of the age spectrum lead the latest Ladder, while several newcomers jostle for room in the Tournament MVP race.

At the rim or beyond the arc, LeBron James has been on target during the In-Season Tournament.

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The inaugural In-Season Tournament has launched with new jerseys, courts and stakes. The event culminates in a race for both the first-ever NBA Cup and the competition’s Most Valuable Player award.

The MVP selection “will be based on the players’ performance in both Group Play and the Knockout Rounds.” With relatively few games and only eight total teams advancing out of Group Play, that means winning matters even more in the sprint for this award.

Here’s a look at which players are claiming the inside track toward Tournament MVP honors.

1. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Tournament stats: 28.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 13.5 apg, 1.8 spg, 49.3 FG%

The Pacers’ offensive engine has been pushed to fifth gear in recent tournament games, including a 157-152 shootout victory at Atlanta. Haliburton never faltered, finishing with 37 points on better than 61% shooting to go with 16 assists.

Indiana’s Group Play finale, a win over Detroit, was easily his worst of the tournament. He still finished with 26 points and 10 assists. Somehow producing like a star even on off-nights is one of the key signs that the shine is for real.

Haliburton has helped morph Myles Turner into one of the most feared pick-and-roll finishers in the league; Turner has already logged more than 50 possessions as the roll man this season (fifth-most), and the Pacers score an absurd 1.51 points per one of those possessions.

Indiana is moving on to the Knockout Rounds after winning East Group A. Haliburton is the first and foremost reason why.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Tournament stats: 25.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.5 apg, 1.0 spg, 60.0 FG%

Fans of both the In-Season Tournament and analytical statistics should prop up James as their symbol. The 38-year-old superstar has taken 18 tournament shots in the restricted area … and missed just one.

James’ efficiency from distance is just as eye-popping. The Lakers forward is shooting 14-for-24 from 3-point range. Incredibly, all of his long-distance attempts are from above the break (not a single shot from the corner).

The Lakers (4-0) were the first West team to clinch their group and a berth in the Knockout Rounds. James has set the shooting standard for a team that has all five of its top scorers shooting north of 50%. After winning every team honor that exists, James appears eager to add the NBA Cup to his trophy case.

3. Damian Lillard, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: Honorable mention

Tournament stats: 29.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 6.3 apg, 52.9 FG%, 50.0 3FG%

Lillard is a statistical coin flip whenever he launches from deep. His opponents likely feel the odds are worse against them, especially in the third quarter, when Lillard has made seven of his nine 3-point attempts in tournament play.

Synergy is on the upswing between Lillard and his new teammates. Brook Lopez is starting to directly benefit; four of Lillard’s 10 assists in Friday’s win over Washington were made via the veteran big man. Lopez finished with a career-high-tying 39 points as a result. Before then, he was shooting just 28.6% on passes from Lillard.

Of the tournament’s top 20 scorers, only Stephen Curry and Trae Young average fewer shots per game. Lillard has brought the exact kind of superstar playmaking Milwaukee envisioned. Aside from closing the gap between them and Boston in the regular season standings, the Bucks (3-0) now sit in the driver’s seat for winning East Group B and the automatic Knockout Rounds berth that comes with it.

4. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Tournament stats: 19.7 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 8.3 apg, 2.0 bpg, 53.5 FG%

The distance between Sabonis and teammate De’Aaron Fox is growing razor-thin after the latter’s 36-point, 12-assist performance on Friday. For now, Fox having only played two tournament games to Sabonis’ three leaves the big man holding a small edge.

Sabonis stuffed the stat sheet in Friday’s win over Minnesota: 15 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals and three blocks. The ramifications of the victory were enormous. Both teams were undefeated in West Group C. Sacramento (3-0) seized control of the group and a potential Knockout Rounds berth with the victory.

The Kings can clinch that next phase of tournament play by winning its final Group Play game against already-eliminated Oklahoma City. Getting there would be a testament to Sabonis’ play with and without Fox in the lineup.

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Last week’s ranking: Unranked

Tournament stats: 30.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 8.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 55.4 FG%

After missing Booker to injury in the tournament opener (a loss to the Lakers), Phoenix won its remaining three games with its younger star in the lineup. The cause-effect cannot be overstated; the Suns have outscored tournament opponents by 55 points in the 99 minutes Booker has played.

For now, Booker’s missed game drops him below the top four. His superstar production vaults him above the rest. The wins and their significance were the tiebreaker. Phoenix has the inside track on the lone wild card spot in the Western Conference, a drastic turnaround from the Lakers loss and a one-possession win over Utah.

The Suns made up for that on Friday (without Kevin Durant) by pummeling Memphis 110-89. Booker scored 40 as he and Phoenix padded their tournament point differential. Incredibly, his banked 3-pointer with 13 seconds remaining ended up providing a single-point advantage over New Orleans. The trickle-down effect means the Suns are likely making the Knockout Rounds barring some truly lopsided results as Group Play closes.

Honorable Mention

De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings: On absolute fire in his first two tournament games back from injury. A third performance of the same quality could launch him into the Top 5.

Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets: Sengun put on an awesome Nikola Jokic imitation in Friday’s win over Denver, and Houston still has a chance to win West Group B.

Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks: Led New York’s dramatic and much-needed comeback win over Miami. The Knicks’ chance to advance will come down to the final games of Group Play.

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat: That’s no typo. Butler really is shooting 61.5% overall and 62.5% from deep in tournament play.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans: Scoring at will inside the arc, but New Orleans will be watching Houston’s final game nervously to see if they’re knocked out by point differential.

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Matt Petersen is an interactive producer for NBA.com.

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