Reggie Jackson is being diplomatic. As he discusses the NBA’s play-in tournament—an event that has had everyone from LeBron James to Mark Cuban up in arms lately—Jackson keeps using the word “interesting.” It’s as if he’s talking about a thought experiment, and in a way, he is: Jackson doesn’t need to worry about the realities of the play-in because the Clippers are essentially locked into either the no. 3 or no. 4 seed in the Western Conference and will automatically advance to the postseason’s first round. Jackson says he didn’t even learn how the tournament worked until a few weeks ago.
“I can’t imagine playing in it,” Jackson said over Zoom this week. “It’s going to be very difficult.”
The Pacers’ Justin Holiday does not have that same luxury. Indiana is likely going to be a part of the East’s play-in as the conference’s no. 9 seed. But even Holiday, speaking at a press conference Monday morning, said he had to refresh his memory as to how the tournament is set up. In short: The 7- and 8-seeds will play each other in a single game, with the winner taking the no. 7 seed. Then the 9- and 10-seeds will play each other, with the loser being eliminated and the winner playing the other game’s loser for the no. 8 seed.
“The season’s been hard enough already,” Holiday said. “But that’s your opportunity, so you gotta take it.”
For some of the teams who are facing the possibility of being part of the play-in—like the defending champion Lakers—this was not expected. L.A. was projected to be at the top of the West before the season and make another serious run at the title. But injuries and on-court struggles have the Lakers in the bottom half of the conference, and LeBron—who is set to miss 23 of the team’s last 25 games with an ankle injury—is saying that the person who came up with “that shit” should be fired.
“I don’t understand the idea of a play-in,” said Luka Doncic, whose Mavericks are on the cusp of the tournament as the no. 5 or 6 seed. “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.” Cuban, the Mavs’ owner who voted in favor of the tournament last November, called it an “enormous mistake.”
The reality of the play-in tournament (and the many opinions surrounding it) is being felt all over the league. The pressure isn’t just on the teams currently holding the 7- and 8-seeds, but also on the 5- and 6-seeds to stay above the cut. Even the top two seeds in each conference are realizing the tournament means they will be the last to know their first-round opponents—a small but not insignificant detail for planning purposes.
But one could also argue that the play-in is working exactly as intended. Meaningful games are happening all over the league with just two weeks left to play, and teams like the Pelicans, Kings, Raptors, and Bulls are continuing to try to win rather than tank. Not to mention the fact that all this buzz—both positive and negative—is creating one of the most can’t-miss season finishes we’ve seen in some time. “I think it’s great,” one assistant coach said. “It gives lesser and younger teams something to play for toward the end of the season. It makes teams not tank and helps younger teams grow and develop.”
Every entity or individual with an opinion on the play-in tournament is coming at it from a different perspective. Some teams, like the Lakers and Heat, who had short offseasons and have been affected by either COVID-19 or injuries this season, can’t fathom that their fate could come down to a handful of games. For a team like the Wizards, though, the play-in has given their stretch run a purpose. And for the rest who are just watching from afar, it’s simply good entertainment.
Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, is not the person responsible for the play-in tournament. But Wasch is the official league spokesman when it comes to matters of the play-in. So while he may not be the person LeBron was referring to when he said the tournament’s creator should be fired, he is the one fielding the feedback, be it good or bad.
“It’s a bit surreal, but this process is somewhat expected, and it comes with the territory whenever we seek to innovate,” Wasch said in an email this week. “Feedback from teams and players only helps us improve the product going forward, so we welcome it, whether it is positive or negative.”
Wasch said the league believes the tournament’s format is simple and fair, and he says all the teams were informed about the rules going into the season. There was, according to Wasch, “extensive communication to teams and players” that included presentations, virtual meetings and memos, as well as the league’s public press releases. Still, the closer the tournament gets, the more people are voicing dissenting opinions.
“I would say I’m not a huge fan of it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said on Monday, adding that he would prefer a model similar to that of the bubble, where a no. 9 seed had to be four games or fewer behind the no. 8 seed to prompt a play-in scenario. “What happens if your best player is hurt during that time? [The play-in] shouldn’t penalize a team that’s played really well for the large majority of the season.”
Malone does see some benefit to the tournament, namely the fan excitement around it and the likelihood of increased viewership numbers. And Blazers coach Terry Stotts—whose team currently holds the no. 7 seed in the West—feels similarly. “I think at the end of the day, everybody is going to love it except for the teams at 7 and 8,” Stotts said. “I think it’s going to be very popular.”
The general consensus around the league is that this change has made the season’s stretch run more exciting. According to Wasch, the NBA’s national TV ratings were up 25 percent in April relative to March, an increase that could suggest more interest in the playoff race. Still, the real evidence will come when the play-in games actually happen.
“Considering we only have three or four Game 7s throughout the playoffs in a typical year, the prospect of these six [elimination] games … will hopefully excite our fans as well,” Wasch said.
Of course, when this method of determining which teams would be involved in the play-in was voted into effect in November, no one could have predicted that things would play out like they have. This unprecedented season has brought on unprecedented results, and suddenly, there’s now a scenario where LeBron, Luka Doncic, and Steph Curry could all feature in the tournament. Sure, that could bring a massive short-term ratings boost to the league—can you imagine those three squaring off in a couple single-elimination games?—but it could just as quickly turn into a long-term disaster should those high-profile teams be eliminated without even getting to a real series.
Plus, as has been the case all season, there’s no telling how COVID-19 could affect everything. “The apocalypse option is what if a no. 6 seed or no. 7 seed gets hit with COVID?” one Western conference general manager said. “And they have to play in the play-in, lose, and then they don’t make the playoffs?”
In a normal regular season, it’s easy to say each team controls its own destiny. But in this one, where COVID-19 and health and safety protocols have sidelined players and sometimes whole teams for long stretches of time, there has been a massive increase in noninjury factors that teams haven’t been able to control.
“The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule,” Cuban told ESPN last month. “Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top six since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous. So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.”
Cuban has a point. But so does the NBA: Having star players play—and play hard—through the end of the season improves the regular-season product and acts as a boost for games in the doldrums of the spring. Wasch said the league acknowledges and is sympathetic to the fact that this was a difficult year for the play-in, because teams often had to treat regular-season games like higher-stakes affairs in terms of player rest and recovery. But the NBA also feels the tournament offers a way for teams who may have felt the squeeze in-season to still make the playoffs.
“The flip side is that the play-in allowed more teams the potential opportunity to qualify for the playoffs,” Wasch said, “thereby balancing out some of the competitive and scheduling inequities that have resulted from those protocols.”
The aforementioned Western Conference general manager, who said he was initially against the play-in concept, has come around to it, and describes the tension around the league as normal for a new idea. But he does wonder whether there’s a better version of the play-in that would expand the field without taking away from the teams that actually earn spots in the regular season.
“I wish there was a baseball version of it, like the wild card, where you don’t affect [the no.] 7 and 8 [seeds],” the GM said. “Maybe it’s no. 9 and 10 seeds, or even if you went 9 through 12, [have a] three-game series and give them a chance to make the playoffs. … The reality is every team is going to be selfish.”
What if the top two seeds in each conference started their first-round series up one game? That’s a tongue-in-cheek idea Suns coach Monty Williams proposed Monday when asked about the play-in. Williams’s team currently occupies the no. 1 seed in the West, and because of that, Phoenix won’t know its first-round opponent until just a few days before the team’s first game.
“That would never go through,” Williams says about his own suggestion with a laugh. “I think when you put yourself in a position to be at the top of the league, there should be a benefit to that, and you don’t really get that being a 1- or 2-seed [this year] because you’re trying to figure out who you’re going to play.”
How quickly things change. Last season, Williams and the Suns were trying to squeeze themselves into a play-in in the bubble, but despite winning all eight of their games, they couldn’t manage. This season, Phoenix is tied for the best record in the league, and Williams is wondering what advantage earning a top-two seed gets his team. It’s hard to blame him. But as Wasch explained, the flip side to the top-two seeds not knowing their opponents is that they’ll get significantly more rest than the play-in teams, so there’s still a “material advantage” to being on top—not to mention home court.
Williams thinks the play-in is good for the game, but his comment reflected the subtext of Cuban’s statement last month: In the NBA, everyone’s looking for an edge. So it makes sense that teams and players will fight against anything that may take even a slight edge away from them. It also makes sense that everyone has an idea they think will make things better.
Wasch said the league hasn’t discussed any tweaks to the play-in yet, but that they will engage with all relevant parties after the season to gather and discuss potential ideas for modifications. Even if the tournament does evolve over the next few seasons, though, it doesn’t seem like something the league is planning to ditch any time soon.
“I’ve talked to the league at length about this, and it’s not going anywhere,” the Western Conference GM said. “They studied the European [soccer] models and they want to expand winning as much as they can to other markets and teams. There’s only one NBA champion, and this is a way for more teams to make it to the playoffs and for them to have the broader market appeal of winning something.”