In the Paint: Defending the NBA play-in tournament

Graphic by Camilla Samuel

Last season, the NBA implemented a play-in tournament for the first time. With the end of last season already abnormal due to COVID-19, the NBA Bubble presented a good opportunity to try out a new format. The play-in tournament occurred after the regular season, before the first round of the playoffs. This season, it will include the seventh through tenth-seeded teams from each conference, with each team competing for the seventh and eighth seeds in their respective conferences. Prior to the implementation of the play-in, the first through eighth-seeded teams in each conference from the regular season advanced directly to the first round of the playoffs. 

There was initial doubt, but fans witnessed the high-quality basketball that came from the 2020 NBA play-in tournament in the bubble, and the league decided to keep this format for the foreseeable future. However, the play-in tournament has come under fire recently from Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and franchise owner Mark Cuban, who called the tournament “an enormous mistake.”

“I don’t understand the idea of a play-in,” Doncic said in a press conference last week. “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.”

These sentiments surprised me. Up until this point, I really thought we were all on the same page. I understand. If the season ended today in a normal year, Doncic and the Mavericks would be headed to the playoffs as the seventh seed. But with the play-in tournament, their spot is not safe. Especially during an already condensed season, making players play additional games could take a physical toll. If you think of it as simply a tactic for the league to profit off of a few extra, exciting games, then I can definitely empathize with the frustration as well. 

I’m not sure where I stand on the play-in tournament’s use during this unconventional season, but I think the format is a step in the right direction. The NBA has long been criticized for how predictable it is. There are superstar players and overloaded teams, making the playoffs rather cut and dry. Critics compare the professional league to college basketball and March Madness, citing college-level play as more exciting due to there being more upsets. The play-in tournament attempts to create more drama by letting the seventh and eighth seeded teams know that their spots aren’t safe and letting fans of the ninth and tenth seeds know that they have a shot.  

Overall, we’ve only seen the play-in tournament in action once. Perhaps after this season, we will have a better sense of what it brings to the table. 


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