Entering play on the final day of the NBA’s 2020-21 season,
remarkably, none of the eight playoff matchups were set and only
one team — the Philadelphia 76ers — definitively knew their
All 30 teams played and just one of the 15 contests
scheduled for the final day of the season wouldn't have a direct
impact on the playoffs. If the league’s intention with the play-in
tournament was to preserve interest in the regular season, it’s
probably safe to say that was accomplished.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the play-in tournament will
be here to stay, though. During the 2019-20 season, not all teams
played the same amount of games. In the 2020-21 season, playing 10
fewer games meant that teams had less of an opportunity to separate
themselves from the pack. The play-in tournaments were implemented
to give lower-seeded teams an opportunity to make up ground and
sneak into the postseason.
When the league announced the play-in format for the 2020-21
season, the release specifically stated that it was only approved for this season.
At a minimum, the league appears to have reserved the right to do
away with it completely or make some tweaks.
While one or two changes might be a good idea, there are some
obvious pros, and the league would be wise to consider them when
deciding whether to make the play-in tourney a one-and-done or a
More teams tried until
the very end
In recent years, tanking became a serious problem in the NBA.
The league took the heavy-handed approach of tinkering with the
lottery odds as a result. That change was brought forth by the
commissioner’s office and its want to disincentivize losing.
The play-in tournament, while a different means, accomplishes
the same goal. Both the New Orleans Pelicans and Chicago Bulls
finished 11th in their conferences, narrowly missing out on the
10th seed by just two games. At 19-33 on April 10, the Washington
Wizards’ prospects of qualifying for the postseason seemed bleak,
but they managed to go 15-5 over their final 20 games and finished
the season as the East's eighth-seeded team.
In years past, a team that was 14 games under .500 may have
mailed it in, but knowing that they “only” needed to attain the
10th seed to have an opportunity for the postseason may have given
Washington the wherewithal to keep trying... Other teams did,
Teams tried until the very end. That made every contest feel
meaningful and, overall, made for a positive viewing experience for
the fans. That should always be the league’s top priority.
The end of the season was
Could the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers avoid the
dubious fate of having to “earn” their spot in the postseason?
Would the New York Knicks crush all expectations and earn a
top-four seed in the Eastern Conference? Was Russell Westbrook
going to get a crack at Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets in the
There were tons of questions heading into the final day of the
regular season, and if preserving suspense was one of the league’s
goals in conceiving the play-in tournament, it’s safe to say the
mission was accomplished.
During the final week of the season, media and fans alike were
able to consider various potential playoff matchups -- many of
which never came to fruition, and some of which weren’t solidified
until all games had been played. The end result was a March
Madness-type feeling by which interested parties had to scoreboard
watch during that final week.
“Who won today? What seed are they now? Who will they play in
the first round?”
May Madness, it was.
“April Madness” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but let’s hope
it becomes the norm.
A mulligan for the
Imagine your boss told you that you had to work two extra hours
each week for the same pay. You wouldn’t be happy about that, would
you? Neither would I. That’s basically what the teams that are
participating in the play-in tournament are being told. Four teams
will each play one extra game, while four teams will play
two. It would make sense if many aren't thrilled.
But what if there was a team that lost its star player due to
injury and found itself out of the playoff race? What if that team
went on a late run and ended up ninth or 10th? Wanting to put the
best teams forward in the playoffs, shouldn’t the league want to
give a team in that situation the opportunity to earn its way into
For what it’s worth, by virtue of the structure of the
tournament, the ninth- or 10th-seeded team can only jump to eighth,
and in order to do that, they would have to win two games in a row
against two of the teams directly ahead of them in the standings.
That’s no easy task.
If a No. 10 seed were able to pull that off, that team could
probably make the case that it is in fact the better team over the
two it defeated. And if it managed to score the two wins, that team
will have earned its way into the postseason.
In recent years, more and more teams have seemed to believe that
the regular season doesn’t count. Players being routinely “load
managed” speaks to that fact.
If nothing else, the play-in tournament ensures that there will
be six more high-intensity, super-competitive games per season — a
plus for the viewing public, as well as for a team that wants to be
sharp heading into the postseason.
And if the number of games played during the season becomes a
concern for the teams participating in the play-in, the league
could always consider playing one or two fewer preseason games. Or
not. But if the choice came down to it, most viewers would advocate
for that without hesitation.
Nothing is perfect, not even the decision to have a play-in
tournament. But based on what we saw in the final weeks of the
2020-21 regular season, there are some obvious pros to making what
was approved as a single-season experiment into a permanent
Check out Alex Kennedy's article
where he makes the case against the current iteration of the NBA
Play-In Tournament and argues that significant changes must be made
if it's here to stay.