The 2020-21 NBA season was not immune to the irregularity of the world during the past year. A later start date and a shortened season, postponements left and right, and a new postseason format were some of the highlights of the NBA’s first full season during a pandemic. The new play-in tournament format was perhaps the most controversial change introduced by the league this year.
In this new format, the 7 through 10 seeds in each conference play a series of must-win games against each other. The winner of the 7 versus 8 game becomes the 7th seed in the playoffs. The loser of that game faces the winner of the 9 versus 10 game. The winner of that third game becomes the 8th seed. The loser goes home.
And now the games have been played and the official playoffs are underway So the time has come to assess the NBA’s play-in tournament after months of speculation from critics and advocates alike. Let’s start by looking at the criticism.
The play-in tournament was not without its high-profile critics. Some of the biggest names in basketball had harsh words for the new format: from Lebron James, to Luka Dončić, and even Dončić’s boss, Mark Cuban.
Dončić, the young Mavericks’ star, had the following to say about the play-in back in April: “I don’t understand the idea of a play-in. You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. So I don’t see the point of that.”
Cuban, the Mavs’ owner, backed up his star player later that week, saying:
The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top 6 since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous. So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.
Cuban’s critique has merit. The NBA season, like any professional sports season, is long and grueling. The physical strain of 6-plus months of world class physical competition is a lot to ask. Even for world-class athletes, those are extremely difficult conditions. For anyone else, they would be impossible. It is not unreasonable for those athletes to want to manage their workloads during the season.
Dončić’s complaint, on the other hand, is a feature rather than a bug. Teams play the regular season for a chance to compete in the postseason. The play-in tournament represents one final hurdle for teams to reach that goal. It is a mini-playoff before the playoffs. If teams wish to avoid that, they must compete harder to get there. And that is exactly what the league wants.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is, obviously, a strong supporter of the play-in. Some of his recent comments have directly refuted the complaints of Cuban and Dončić: “Over the past few years, pre-pandemic, there’s been a lot of reference to our long regular season and the issues around player resting, and we tried to address that as well… I think the way we dealt best with the resting… was the motivation for teams to care about being in the playoffs and their actual play-in position.”
Fans have not loved the increased focus on resting star players in recent years, and the NBA has sought to address that. Resting stars, as well as the length of a typical NBA season, have, for some fans, decreased the value and competitiveness of the regular season. One of the NBA’s main goals in instituting the format was to address those issues specifically.
In contrast to Luka Dončić’s complaint about the play-in being unfair, Silver and the league suggest that it is by design. Teams should fight to finish in the top 6 seeds in their conference to avoid the play-in. Additionally, teams further down the conference brackets have more to compete for in a 10-team format than an 8-team format. So not only are the teams in the middle of the pack fighting harder than in years past, so too are the teams slightly further down. Even if the 10th seeded Charlotte Hornets were a longshot to ever win a playoff series against the likes of Philadelphia or Brooklyn, the existence of the play-in tournament gave a young and exciting team something meaningful to compete for down the stretch this year.
In terms of on-court product, the play-in games varied in quality roughly along conference lines, in typical NBA fashion. The highlight in the Eastern Conference games was Jayson Tatum’s 50-point night against Washington. His reward for this was a first round matchup with the powerhouse Nets. Unfortunately for viewers, that Celtics-Wizards game was not very close. Boston won, 118-100. That 18-point margin would be the closest of any of the three Eastern Conference games. The other two games were each decided by an identical 27-point margin. Neither the Pacers-Hornets nor the Wizards-Pacers games ever felt competitive.
And though the games themselves might have been relative duds, there is still an argument to be made that the play-in games made the Eastern Conference more compelling down the stretch. The Wizards got off to the league’s worst start in January and February. Without the expanded field afforded by the play-in, it is possible to think they are a team who would have been demoralized and tanked the remainder of the season. Instead they fought all the way back and claimed a playoff spot for themselves. The Hornets, meanwhile, were a young and exciting team who got a very brief taste of (unofficial) postseason experience as the 10th-seed. Even though they did not win, that is an experience that can only help them moving forward.
While the East’s games were mostly non-competitive, the West delivered more than the NBA could have hoped for. The Memphis-San Antonio matchup was a compelling, back-and-forth game. A young and exciting Grizzlies team was matched up against the league’s steadiest and most consistent franchise in the Spurs. Memphis jumped out to an early lead, but Gregg Popovich’s team did what they always do and stayed in the fight, with Memphis ultimately holding on and earning the win.
But the crown jewel of the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament was undoubtedly the Lakers versus Warriors matchup. In other words: Lebron versus Steph, in a one-game playoff. The game delivered on entertainment value, and ESPN was rewarded with its most-watched NBA game since 2019. Lebron’s game-winning 3-pointer is the kind of moment everybody who supports the NBA hopes for every postseason: the league’s biggest star on the biggest stage, hitting the biggest shot. In that regard, the play-in undeniably delivered.
The final play-in game between the Warriors and Grizzlies was yet another hard-fought and compelling matchup. With Memphis doing everything they could to keep Steph Curry from single-handedly ending their season, they were able to hold on in overtime to advance to the playoffs as the 8-seed. Like the other two games in the Western bracket, it was an intriguing matchup that put the spotlight on two teams at totally different developmental stages. Memphis, just turning the corner after a quick rebuild. Golden State, trying to cling to their former dynasty as injuries ravaged their lineup. If nothing else, this matchup made for compelling sports theater.
Like it or not, the play-in is likely here to stay, according to Silver. And in my mind, the pros outweigh the cons. There is more value in regular season games for most of the league’s teams. At the same time, the play-in does not cheapen or water down the playoff field by allowing in more teams. It is still a 16-team field at the end of the day. Those bottom four teams in each conference are forced to compete harder to earn their spot in the field. The teams just above them also have to compete harder to avoid the win-or-go-home tournament. The threat of missing the playoffs altogether as the 7-seed, however remote, puts just a little more pressure on winning every night during the regular season.
And that is to say nothing about the games themselves. It is doubtful that the league will get Lebron and Steph in the play-in every year. But their matchup highlighted what the new format can offer to the fans. Even without the brightest stars, the play-in is a spotlight for exciting players who might not otherwise receive as much national attention. Ja Morant had an opportunity to shine on the national stage this year, and he took full advantage of it.
It is reasonable to continue to worry about player workloads over the course of a full season. The play-in does not lessen that concern, and the league may wish to address it. But the thrill of a one-game playoff is a great thing for the league. And on top of that, the league potentially increases the value of its nightly product. The added level of competition at the end of the season incentivizes teams to compete harder during the regular season. And perhaps this might also help curb the perceived issue of “tanking” at the bottom of the league as well.
Year 1 of the play-in tournament was a success for the NBA. Expect them to listen to player complaints and adapt as necessary. But do not expect this format to go away any time soon.