NBA Playoffs

OK Fine, Let’s Talk About The Play-In Tournament

Teams, fans, and media need to decide whether they want the regular season to matter or not.

The NBA’s inaugural Play-In Tournament begins in fifteen days, and the current media furor over it is emblematic of all the worst parts of the wider discourse. As is customary, LeBron James sits at the center of the firestorm. LeBron ripped the concept of the play-in , clearly coincidental with his disinterested-looking Lakers squad dropping its sixth game out of the last seven and falling into a three-way tie for fifth in the West at 36-28 with Portland and Dallas. The Lakers’ swoon positions all three teams for an eight-game sprint to the finish line, with the “loser” of the group left to occupy the 7th seed and play a “win and you’re in” game against the 8-seed. [The loser of that game then plays a single elimination game against the winner of the 9/10 game for the final playoff spot.] Regardless of who the teams are, that sounds kind of exciting, right?

Somehow, the argument which keeps getting passed around by critics of the new format is that it “devalues” the regular season, despite the fact it has demonstrably created a massive sense of urgency for a whole slew of teams who, under the old rules, would essentially have nothing to play for at this juncture of the season. This line of reasoning is so specious, especially because it emanates from a lot of the same people who have for years been lamenting how the final month of the season is pointless and no one tries hard. Which is it? Do you want the regular season to matter, or not?

Humans respond to incentives, and NBA players and coaches even more so than most. The simple reality is that by adding an extra set of inflection points in each conference — at both the 6/7 and 10/11 seed lines — the league has incentivized more teams to compete all-out until the final games. As it stands, only five teams — Orlando, Detroit, OKC, Minnesota, and Houston — out of the 30 have been mathematically eliminated from the play-in, with Cleveland soon to join them. [To their credit, Orlando and Minnesota have continued to play competitive basketball, while the others, along with Sacramento, have mostly let go of the rope.]

So most of the league is continuing to play meaningful basketball, whether it’s to secure a higher seed, avoid the play-in tournament (at the 6/7 line), or to crack into it (at the 10/11 line). Under the old rules, a number of teams who are mathematically still in the mix — Washington, Toronto, Chicago, and New Orleans — would likely have pulled the ripcord by now. Beyond that, teams securely in the playoffs in previous years but not out of range of the play-in tourney now (Knicks, Hawks, Heat, Celtics, Mavericks, Blazers, and Lakers) have no choice but to keep their foot on the gas. As one final added bonus, with a potential first-round threat like the Lakers possibly getting one of the bottom seeds — but without having any idea which one it might end up being — the teams at the top of the West can’t sandbag their last few contests in an effort to game the matchups, like the Nuggets did a couple years ago in a shameless display of last-minute tankery.

It’s no surprise the teams sitting in 7th under the new format aren’t big fans of it. Many people support positive change in the abstract right up until the point it bites them in their specific ass. But all thirty teams voted for this change, and here’s a foolproof idea for those who want to avoid being stuck in the play-in: win your goddamn regular season games!

This isn’t to disparage LeBron. Frequent visitors to this space know I am the furthest thing from a knee-jerk LeBron hater. But he knows better, and with he and Anthony Davis back in the lineup now, it’s not as though the Lakers have any excuse for their lackadaisical play. Chances are, we’re just seeing the public manifestation of the private frustrations many players and teams are enduring as part of this weird, stressful, condensed season. It’s easy to say that the Raptors, for example, don’t deserve a shot at the postseason, what with their rotten 27-38 record. This discounts the degree to which they have experienced an absolute season from hell. They’ve been forced to effectively play an entire season on the road because they cannot travel back and forth to Toronto, with their nominal home games taking place in a mostly empty arena in that most desirable of travel destinations, Tampa, Florida. [No disrespect to Tampa. OK, maybe a little.] The fact they’ve been competitive at all, despite six months on the road, brutal injury- and COVID-related luck, and calls to blow the team up mid-season, is a testament to the durability of their organization and culture, the kind the “purists” out their usually like to tout, at least when it suits their needs. The Raptors have won six of their last ten, including Sunday’s game against the aforementioned, scuffling Lakers, to stay within range of the tenth-place Wizards.

Speaking of: break up the Wizards! A 29-35 record doesn’t look like much, but after a 17-32 start featuring a 13-day COVID pause in January, they’ve since won twelve of fifteen to take sole possession of the final play-in spot. Russell Westbrook is back to his scalp-taking ways of old (23/12/12 in thirty games since the All-Star break), Bradley Beal is still among the leading scorers in the league even after the recent detonation by Steph Curry, and the reshuffled deck of young guys and cast-aside veterans has resulted in a supporting cast which can occasionally muster something like professional defense. The Wiz may not be a threat for a deep playoff run, but there’s no way any of the teams currently above them in the play-in standings (Boston, Charlotte, and Indiana) will be enthused about facing them in a do-or-die scenario.

Point is, we’re left with an endgame to the season where these hard-luck late bloomers like the Raptors and Wizards have the opportunity to shake off their bad starts, while disappointing marquee teams like the Celtics and Lakers are forced to fight for their playoff lives. None of those scenarios would exist under the old format, so HOW CAN ANYONE ARGUE THIS IS A BAD THING? And oh yeah, there’s also this: single elimination games are super-exciting! It’s the whole reason we all like the NCAA Tournament. Upsets are fun, and the likelihood of them increases in a single-game situation where the variance is jacked up. A 2-seed in the NCAA’s spent thirty-something games establishing itself as better than the 15-seed it faces in the Round of 64, but this fact doesn’t cause anyone to decry the college basketball season as meaningless. And when the 15-seed miraculously wins, it’s the most exciting shit in sports. NBA fans don’t want to mimic some of that madness? Why the hell not?

The argument against the play-in boils down to the most dangerous eight words in the English language: “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” This is rarely ever a compelling argument, and it certainly isn’t in this case, no matter how much you do or do not enjoy the combination of purple and gold hues. The NBA has never been shy about tweaking things in search of the next evolution of the game, and it has been equally willing to admit and rectify its mistakes. [The dress code, that dumb composite leather ball, and shortening the three-point line in ’94 are all good examples of well-intentioned changes which were abandoned in short order.] Perhaps we can all afford the league a bit of grace here, especially since this particular change has already had a discernible effect on the competitiveness of an otherwise mediocre and dispiriting regular season.

In the end, this is all a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. No team lower than the 6-seed has ever won the title, and that’s only happened once (the ’95 Rockets, who retooled their roster mid-season in a weird year which featured the original hand-checking ban). By the time the first round of the playoffs ends, it’s unlikely anything which took place in the play-in tournament will be of any consequence. So let’s all just relax, enjoy some single-elimination NBA basketball, and see how it shakes out. Including you, LeBron.

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