The NBA Play-in Tournament Is Not the Playoff Solution the League Needs: The NBA is, without question, home to the best basketball players the world has to offer, with tough competition and the opportunity, on any given night, for an underdog to win. However, when it comes to the playoffs, where the best of these athletes compete for the greatest prize the sport has to offer, the NBA has an issue
Since Lebron James made his famous declaration of taking his talents to South Beach, and the creation of the super team in Miami, parity within the league has become a major issue.
Winning being a foregone conclusion for the likes of the Heat in the earliest stages of the last decade. The Warriors and Cavs then continued that trend for much of the rest of it.
We could blame the creation of super teams for this lack of parity. When you have Steph Curry and Kevin Durant on your team, never mind having Klay Thompson and Draymond Green out there as well, it seems hard to point out true competition for them. Same could be said for Lebron’s Miami team, or Lebron’s Cavs team.
However, these super teams, which have been around for quite some time, aren’t the issue. Instead, we should be looking at the way the playoffs are structured, which has proven time and time again to allow for teams with losing records (namely the Eastern Conference, with instances in 2013 and 2015) to enter despite there being teams with winning records in the opposite conference who, due to the strength and level of competition, saw themselves on the outside. 2015 is perhaps the most egregious example, with the Celtics and Nets both making the playoffs despite records of 40-42 and 38-44 respectively.
Both were eliminated in the first round. The Thunder were 45-37 that year, yet due to the strength of the Western Conference as a whole, and the result of tie breakers for the 8th spot in the west, saw their season end.
The Suns, despite a losing record of 39-43, would have made the playoffs over the Nets had they been in the east. If the season ended today, the past 10 seasons would have seen 10 teams with losing records make the playoffs, the most coming from this season with 4 losing teams either outright in the playoffs or qualifying for the play-in tournament. Neither the NHL nor the MLB have had losing teams make the playoffs. The NFL has only had 2 in their past 10 seasons.
This is only mentioned because 2021 sees the NBA fully commit to a play-in tournament format. Seeds one through six in both conferences get guaranteed playoff spots. Where it gets convoluted is with deciding the 7th and 8th seeds. The 7th and 8th seeds face each other to decide the 7th seed in the playoffs.
The loser of that matchup will face the winner of the matchup between the regular season 9th and 10th seeds to decide who gets the 8th and final playoff seed. If you’re confused or angry about such a setup, you’re not the only one.
Lebron James came out on May 2nd with his criticism of the format, saying “Whoever came up with that s*** needs to be fired.” Luka Doncic made his opinion quite clear last month, and struck at the heart of the issue, “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.”
In a season last year stopped by a global pandemic, and then played entirely within a bubble for weeks, a play-in tournament held some sense. Teams on the cusp of a playoff berth and gaining momentum prior to the stoppage last season would have had a valid argument for getting an opportunity to play in the playoffs.
It gave a chance to those, under normal circumstances, who could have made the playoffs outright. Why continue it for this season and the foreseeable future? Perhaps it boils down to the league wanting to make the playoffs more “exciting” for the fair-weather fan, or to benefit those in markets that have never really found success, who with a win or two could be staring at a bottom seed in the playoffs.
Or maybe it comes down to profits, the NBA looking to maximize exposure and revenues by adding more games and advertising them as marquee matchups to decide the playoffs. Either way, this format delegitimizes the efforts of teams who play the best they can in the regular season to earn their seeding, and allows for an undeserving team to luck their way into the playoffs.
The league already has a problem with 1st seeds coasting into the second round against 8th seeds, what will we see with the potential of a 1st seed playing against a non-playoff team in the first round? Certainly not a better or more competitive series.
The league has had a better solution, at least in the name of competitive parity, staring right at it for years now. The conference divisions are perfect for scheduling during the regular season, and should be kept for that purpose. But when it comes to deciding the best in the league and crown a new NBA champion? It’s certainly a proposition that has drawn criticism in the past, but the playoffs should be seeded irrespective of conference, the true top 16 in the league duking it out between each other.
In past seasons, the only matchups worth watching didn’t come until the Conference finals, or even the Finals themselves. Under this format, you’d get those competitive marquee matchups earlier, and continue on from there. A lot less of a cake-walk for higher seeded teams, and a lot more engaging, dynamic matchups to see.
The potential to see, for instance, the Celtics and Lakers face each other in a semi-final round to decide who gets a spot in the Finals would certainly have its opponents, but the idea of two teams filled with great talents facing each other in the playoffs every year would surely reignite the fierce rivalry they once had, and would allow new ones to spring up that would draw the fair-weather fan a lot more.
Ultimately, it’s not in the name of television ratings or rivalry building that I hope the league reconsiders the play-in tournament format they’re sticking with. It’s in the name of competitive integrity, the opportunity for teams that deserve playoff spots to have a chance at the championship.
Playoff spots should be earned in the regular season, not played into after the end of the season.