In-Season Tournament: MVP rankings

Published December 4, 2023, 8:00 PMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

NBA.com Philippines writer Polo Bustamante lists down his top candidates for the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP.

The first-ever NBA In-Season Tournament is now done with the group stages. Up next is the knockout phase where the remaining eight teams battle it out in single-elimination games to determine who will be the first In-Season Champion.

With most of the top players out of the picture, it’s also a great time to take a look at who the leaders are for the In-Season Tournament MVP from the remaining top performers. 

If I were part of the selection committee, there are three things I would look at closely in determining who the MVP will be.

First up, I would take a look at their stats from the tournament and see which one key stat separates them from the rest of the field. Next up, I would also see if they have an iconic moment that has really made this tournament memorable for that player so far. Of course, there are more iconic moments that could come during the KO stage. Finally, I would break down the compelling narrative. What is the storyline that makes this player worthy of the MVP?

With all that out of the way, here are my leaders for the NBA In-Season Tournament MVP.

1. LeBron James, LA Lakers

Key Stat: Out of the three players on this list, James is the most impactful. His Plus-Minus is the highest of the three at plus-12.3. That stat translates to advanced metrics because his Net Rating still tops this list at 20.9. Those numbers simply mean that the Lakers are so much better when James is on the floor.

Iconic Moment: James got the better of Kevin Durant in their first (!!!) match-up in five years as the Lakers rallied back from a double-digit deficit to pull out the win in the fourth quarter. James led the Lakers with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists to overcome the 38 points of Durant.

While James got a lot of help during the fourth-quarter run, when it came down to winning time, it was the King that made the big plays. 

He nailed a tough fadeaway jumper to give the Lakers a four-point cushion with less than three minutes left in the game. In the final minutes of the game, he drove into the paint, attracted the defense and dished to Cam Reddish for the dagger three. That was a redemption play after a similar play failed to deliver the win a few games earlier.

Narrative: Out of everyone in the league, James has the least incentive to try hard during the In-Season Tournament. He’s practically done it all in the 21 years he’s been in the league. An In-Season Tournament MVP is a drop in the bucket when taking into account all his accolades. Yet here he is, trying his best to get the Lakers all the way to the end.

He’s putting up 25 points on 60 percent shooting, adding eight rebounds, and eight assists while playing 29 minutes and not missing a game of the tournament so far. James is gunning for the championship and in the process, he’s leading the MVP conversation once again. All this at nearly 39 years old.

2. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

Key Stat: Fox was out for the first game of the group stage but he made sure to make up for the missed time. In only three In-Season Tournament games, Fox is second in scoring, averaging 36 points on 48.7 percent shooting. 

His performance in those games quickly vaulted him to the top of the MVP rankings, overtaking even his teammate, Domantas Sabonis. For someone to be able to overtake a player averaging 17-11-8, he must be playing MVP-level basketball.

Iconic Moment: Fox didn’t waste any time making an impact on the Kings’ In-Season Tournament run. In his first game of the tourney, he dropped 43 points to power Sacramento’s comeback run from an early 18-point deficit. In that game, Fox scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to help put the game away.

Fox is in the middle of a breakout season where he’s averaging 30.3 points and 6.6 assists. That 43-point explosion was the statement game so far in a season filled with statement games. For it to come during the In-Season Tournament just cements his status as an MVP front-runner for the tourney.

Narrative: Fox has been the engine behind Sacramento’s high-octane offense. But, he’s still not getting the recognition he deserves.

Last season, he made the All-Star team, but not outright. He was only subbed in as a one of the replacements for injured players. When talking about the best point guards in the league, Fox’s name is rarely brought up. In fact, this season, he’s getting bumped out of the conversation because of guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyrese Haliburton (more on him later).

An In-Season MVP award during the season he’s having will not only put Fox on the map, that will also make it an undeniable fact that he’s one of the top players, not just point guards in the league.

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

Key Stat: Haliburton is the best playmaker in the league, not just the In-Season Tournament. It’s not even close. Zooming into his In-Season numbers though, he’s dishing out 13.5 assists in the tournament, topping all players. He assists on a staggering 46.6 percent of his teammates’ field goals. The only meaningful player ahead of Haliburton in terms of Assist Percentage is Nikola Jokic at 47.3 percent.

Iconic Moment: Interestingly, Haliburton’s iconic moment doesn’t involve him passing the rock. 

The Pacers were only up one with less than 30 seconds left in their first In-Season Tournament game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Haliburton had the rock and the mismatch against Jarrett Allen with the shot clock running down. At that point, he wasn’t looking to pass. He dribbled to the right wing, stepped back, and drilled the dagger triple to secure the win.

Narrative: That iconic moment came during one of Haliburton’s worst shooting performances. He finished that game shooting only 35.7 percent, missing nine of his 14 shots. But it didn’t matter, he put the game in his hands and delivered the win. That game set the tone for the Pacers in the In-Season Tournament where they swept the group stage and were one of the first teams to advance to the knockout phase.

Haliburton is the clear-cut leader of the Pacers this season. He’s playing like an All-Star averaging 27.0 points and 11.8 assists. In the In-Season Tournament, those numbers bump up to 28.5 and 13.5. In the In-Season Tournament, he’s not just an All-Star, he’s an MVP.

An MVP win for Haliburton validates why the In-Season Tournament exists. It shines a light on teams, and in this case, players that wouldn’t be in the year-end awards conversation.