If you were to take a poll of casual NBA fans, many of them
would tell that you one of the reasons they couldn’t become
diehards is because the NBA season is just so long. The regular
season is about six months, and the playoffs another two.
Truth be told, many of the league’s players feel the same exact
Weeks ago, when Portland Trail Blazers interim general manager
Joe Cronin provided an update on Damian
Lillard, Cronin stopped short of saying that Lillard would not be
returning this season. But he did admit that a part of not pushing
Lillard to return was the fact that the organization felt the
superstar needed a “mental break,” as much as a physical one.
It's hard for the league’s players to be fully invested for
training camp, preseason and then, 82 games — especially when the
current generation of player has been trained to believe that the
only thing that makes for a “successful” season is winning a
championship. That belief has resulted in some dangerous trends
developing, from superstar players being “load managed” during the
regular season to some opining that the regular season is
The answer, and Silver’s challenge, has been to change that
perception and give players and teams more things to play for. The
Play-In Tournament has done exactly that.
Traditionally, teams have cared about securing playoff spots,
but by the time most of the league’s teams had played 70 games, the
playoff picture had become somewhat clear. And even for those teams
whose seeds weren’t fixed, the priority with 12 to 15 games
remaining in the regular season was to enter the postseason as
healthy and as fresh as possible. Star players were rested, while
many others would see their minutes limited. Those that did play
would often half-step through the contests.
Obviously, that’s understandable, but it didn’t exactly make for
the best viewing experience — particularly for season ticket
holders who would see the final 8 to 10 games of their teams'
campaigns not being treated with any real urgency.
The Play-In Tournament, though, has changed that. If nothing
else, it’s doused the league’s collective competitive fire with a
bit of gasoline. Instead of teams simply vying for the top four
seeds, the Play-In has created bands that preserve a team’s
competitive nature, almost regardless as to what its seed is.
Outside of the top four, the fifth and sixth-seeded teams will
fight to the end, because those seeds now have newfound value.
Aside from having to “earn” their way into the postseason at
seventh or eighth, at least one of No. 7 or No. 8 will have to play
two additional games. That’s not exactly ideal when you know the
No. 1 or No. 2 seed is going to be waiting on the other side.
Seventh and eighth, obviously, will be trying to catch No. 6.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the conference, the teams anywhere
within striking distance of the No. 10 seed will be gunning for
that spot. No longer is the eighth seed the goal for everyone;
competitive teams would pursue No. 10 for no other reason than to
expose their young players to a level of competition in which
something more than a “normal” regular season game was at
In other words, instead of two bands where teams compete for a
top-four seed and a top-eight seed, we’ve already seen teams
playing through the end of the season because there’s simply more
value in more spots.
That’s great for the league’s fans.
Everything else — and yes, there’s more — is a bonus.
The fact that the top two seeds don’t know who their opponent
will be adds a level of intrigue to the postseason that didn’t
exist in the same way before the Play-In Tournament. Then, of
course, there's the fact that we’ve already seen that superstars
and their teams aren’t immune from being forced to earn their way
Last season, we witnessed LeBron James and Steph Curry square
off in an epic battle that saw the Los Angeles Lakers prevail, and
then Curry and the Golden State Warriors were eliminated by Ja
Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2020, in the Orlando Bubble,
we saw the Grizzlies do battle with Damian Lillard and the Portland
This season, it would appear that both the LeBron and Kevin
Durant will see their respective teams have to earn their way into
the postseason. The Lakers enter play on March 16 all but
guaranteed to be in the Play-In, and most probably as the ninth
seed. The Lakers trail the eighth-seeded Clippers by 5.5 games in
the standings, meaning that they would have to beat the New Orleans
Pelicans, and then, either the Los Angeles Clippers or Minnesota
Timberwolves for the right to play the Phoenix Suns in the first
Out East, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets have a shot at catching
the Cleveland Cavaliers for the sixth seed — they trailed the Cavs
by 3.5 games in the standings with 13 to play coming into Thursday.
But if things end up the way they are today, Brooklyn would be
eighth, and would have to play in Toronto (and without Kyrie
Irving) in their first Play-In game. If they lost that game,
Brooklyn would have to play either Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks
or LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets.
In other words, it’s possible that neither LeBron nor Durant
could be in the 2022 postseason. That they’ll likely have to fight
their way in, though, makes for must-see TV.
With less than 15 games to go in the regular season, rather than
seeing most teams opt to rest their star players and/or mail-in the
effort as they await the start of the playoffs, a lot is still yet
to be decided.
There are many things that you could call that — awesome,
But for Adam Silver, it happens to be something different
It’s a mission accomplished.
In short order, the NBA’s play-in tournament has already made
winners of us all.