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The good, the bad and the ugly of the NBA play-in tournament

Like it or not — and there are those in both camps — the play-in tourney makes business sense for the league

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Portland Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic and Memphis Grizzlies’ Jonas Valanciunas reach for the opening tip in an NBA basketball play-in game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Aug. 15, 2020. For better or worse, the play-in tourney is back again in 2021.

Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP, File

Remember when the NBA regular season determined the playoff field? Remember when, after 82 games, the grind and battle of the season, the eight winningest teams in each conference were rewarded for their efforts with a spot in the championship tournament?

It was a system that made sense, that was mostly fair. It’s also a system that doesn’t exist anymore.

In case you missed the memo, the 2020-21 NBA season will be followed by a play-in tournament to determine the seventh and eighth seed in each conference. You might be thinking, isn’t that already decided by win-loss records? Not anymore.

When the regular season concludes, the seventh and eighth seeds will play against one another. The winner of the seven-eight game will earn the seventh seed.

Then, the ninth and 10th seeds, previously not a part of any postseason consideration, will play one another. The winner of the nine-10 game will play the loser of the seven-eight game, and the winner of this final game will earn the eighth seed.

This new format has been met with mixed reviews from players, coaches, owners and fans. There are a lot of reasons to like or not like the play-in tournament, depending on who you are.

“Would I like to be in that tournament? If you’re 10th, yeah. But if you finish seventh, after battling all year? It’s kind of tough if you’re seventh and you can lose your spot to the 10th.” — Rudy Gobert

“I think it’d be great to watch,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “I think it’ll be high-level basketball from whoever is going to be fighting for those spots, it’s going to be some really good teams, a lot of superstar talent so it would be good to watch.

“Would I like to be in that tournament? If you’re 10th, yeah. But if you finish seventh, after battling all year? It’s kind of tough if you’re seventh and you can lose your spot to the 10th.”

Gobert is not wrong. For the teams that have earned one of the top eight spots through the regular season it would be very frustrating, and that’s just one of the many criticisms that the tournament has received.

If you’re undecided or haven’t thought about it much, a pros and cons list might make things a little more clear.

I should warn you though, I’ve thought a lot about this format and studied the pros and cons of the tournament at length, and I still haven’t landed on one side or the other. But, for better or worse, the play-in tournament is happening and it’s likely to stick around, so here’s what you need to know.


Of the entities that benefit from the play-in tournament, the NBA as a business is at the very top of the list.

In 2018, after 81 games were played, the eighth seed in the Western Conference was still undecided. The Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves were tied in the standings and it just so happened that the Nuggets and Timberwolves were scheduled to play each other in the final game of the season — a gift from the scheduling gods. The winner would earn the final seed and be in the playoffs. The loser would go home empty-handed.

There was so much riding on that final win-or-go-home game that it sparked excitement throughout the league. It had the energy of a Game 7. The Target Center in Minneapolis was sold out. The whole NBA world tuned in, and the league office took notice.

Last season, after play was halted by the coronavirus pandemic, when the NBA was planning for the Orlando bubble, the league had a unique opportunity to create the kind of excitement that 2018 season-ending game generated. The league was looking for any way it could to generate interest and excitement into a fanless and turbulent season, so it implemented the first iteration of the play-in.

If the ninth seed was less than four games behind the eighth seed in either conference, they would play each other for the final playoff spot. The eighth seed would need to win just once to solidify its spot. But if the ninth seed beat the eighth seed twice, the ninth seed would supplant the eighth seed for a playoff spot.

That scene ended up playing out in the Western Conference with No. 8 Portland facing No. 9 Memphis in a play-in game in the bubble. The league liked what it saw.

“I guess it brings some ratings and some attention to the league, and I mean I think it’s a cool idea. I think it is going to be real competitive.” — Jordan Clarkson

“I guess it brings some ratings and some attention to the league, and I mean I think it’s a cool idea,” Jordan Clarkson said. “I think it is going to be real competitive.”

The NBA is banking on the play-in being competitive, not just for the ratings, but also because the more competitive a larger number of teams are, the better for the league.

If you have teams as far down as the 12th seed competing to try to get into the 10th spot for a chance to be in the play-in tournament, that means that less teams are tanking, which also helps ratings. A more competitive league is better for business, which is why the league flattened the lottery odds a few years back.

“Based on what we’ve seen in terms of team behavior the last few years — the competitiveness on the court and the competitiveness in the standings — we’re pleased with the early results of both the lottery change and the play-in tournament,” Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck.

So, from a league perspective, the play-in tournament is a win, and likely to be a fixture in seasons to come. But it’s not just the league that is looking at the play-in as a good thing.

Imagine a scenario in which a team dealt with major injuries through the first part of the season, or a team that had a lot of turnover and change at the trade deadline. Then, through the last half of the season, things started to click. Or maybe things were going really well through the first half of the season and injury or illness caused uncharacteristic losses through the second half of the season.

Those teams could be very competitive in the playoffs and it could be argued that they deserve a playoff spot more than some of the other teams that moved up in the standings while they were figuring things out. Those are scenarios that are playing out right now in the NBA.

Imagine being a fan of one of those teams. 

Lastly, think about the teams that currently might end up in the play-in tournament. In the East there’s the Washington Wizards with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, the Charlotte Hornets with Rookie of the Year contender LaMelo Ball, and the Miami Heat who contended for a title last season.

In the West it could be Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks or the young and dynamic Memphis Grizzlies. 

The play-in tournament could end up being a star-studded, ultra competitive massive battle with legendary performances. You’d be hard-pressed to find an NBA fan that doesn’t want to see that.

There are certainly silver linings and positive aspects of the play-in tournament. But, there are also some downsides.


First and foremost is the fact that the play-in tournament could end up completely upending the work a team has done through the regular season. The teams that earned the seventh and eighth seed in each conference worked hard to get to that point and they could end up being bounced by a team with a losing record who barely eked into the 10th spot.

Like Gobert noted, it’s really hard to make that seem fair. After decades of the regular season deciding the playoff field it’s really hard to get players to buy into a new system.

“After you’ve been in the league for a while, you’ve kind of gotten stuck and used to the style that we’ve had where there are eight seeds at the end and then you go from there,” Mike Conley said. “So, for me, I’m the old-school guy or veteran and I’m cool with the past setting.”

It’s not just about being traditional or resistant to change. The importance of the 82-game season (or 72 this season) is watered down when the league, more or less, says, “If you can’t get it done in 82 tries, here’s a couple more.”

Furthermore, this year in particular there are some things about the play-in that could end up being really bad for the teams involved, and even those that aren’t.

The truncated and brutal schedule has been criticized all year, and while the teams that are locked into the top six spots in each conference will have a small break between the May 16 end of the regular season and the May 22 beginning of the playoffs, the teams in the play-in tournament will begin play on May 18 and turn right around and have to face a matchup against the top teams in the league with barely any time to prepare or rest.

And, it’s not just that the teams in the play-in won’t have a lot of time to prepare. The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, who have played the best basketball in the league through the regular season, making them deserving of all the advantages that come with those achievements, will have less information than ever heading into the playoffs.

“After you’ve been in the league for a while, you’ve kind of gotten stuck and used to the style that we’ve had where there are eight seeds at the end and then you go from there. So, for me, I’m the old-school guy or veteran and I’m cool with the past setting.” — Mike Conley

While each team has a team of scouts and coaches that are preparing for any and all playoff possibilities well in advance, it’s not easy for a team like the top-seeded Jazz to prepare for a playoff matchup with the same care and attention to detail that they would have in the past. With roughly 10 games left in the regular season, the Jazz’s opponent has only been whittled down to a field of five teams.

“It’s a little wild,” Clarkson said. “That’s a wild situation. ... I feel bad for the scouting guys because they’ll have to end up scouting like four teams instead of one and probably be flying and watching a bunch of games.”

It definitely puts a different and new amount of pressure on teams’ scouting departments, but also on the head coaches.

“You’ll have to try to prepare for more teams and that’s a challenge,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It requires more people working in conjunction with one another.”

So, is the play-in tournament a good thing?

If you are looking for a hard and solid answer as to whether the play-in is good for the NBA or not, it really depends on who you ask. The third, fourth and fifth seed in each conference are probably indifferent. But for everyone else, there is something at stake, be it good or bad.

Teams at the top of the standings will have to prepare more and be spread thin in their preparation, teams at the bottom of the standings will have more to fight for, creating more competition, teams in the seventh and eighth seeds could lose their place in the playoffs, fans of teams who are knocked out will be devastated and fans of teams who make it in will be elated.

But in the end, it’s a league decision and the NBA play-in is good for business and the bottom line always wins.