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Regardless of what happens this week, the NBA Play-In Format needs to change

The NBA devised a decent play-in format for the bubble, then made it worse

2021 Play-In Tournament - Charlotte Hornets v Indiana Pacers Photo by A.J. Mast/NBAE via Getty Images

While we await the start of the playoffs tomorrow, permit me to stray from Bucks-centric coverage for an editorial on this year’s play-in situation.

First off, I like the idea of a play-in tournament. In years past, a few deserving teams with solid winning records found themselves with a bad lottery pick instead of at least home playoff games (and the revenue from having two at home). This mostly happened in the West: the 2018 Nuggets (46-36) come to mind immediately, but also 2014 Suns (48-34) and 2013 Jazz (43-39). Considering these teams would have been 6 seeds or better in the East, it looks even more unfair that they headed for Cancun while Kohl-era Bucks and the rest of the East’s dregs were being swept by LeBron’s Heat or Cavs. There have been a few recent East teams around or a game above .500 who would have benefited too, though.

In theory, the play-in deters more teams from tanking and in practice, that seemed to occur over the past several weeks. Whether that will happen in future seasons after how things unfold in 2021 remains to be seen. Remember: these teams are vying for the “honor” of facing the top two seeds in each conference, two of which (Utah and Phoenix) posted 50 wins even in this shortened season. However, I’d guess the media attention and perhaps additional revenue from even one additional game is worth it to those franchises: the Pacers, Hornets, and Wizards were all on national TV on Tuesday evening without any national competition from other teams. Has that ever happened?

The Original Idea

During the league’s COVID shutdown in 2020, the league and players’ union devised the first play-in tournament for each conference’s last seed. Here’s how that worked, if you forgot. Maybe the seventh seed wasn’t considered for the format since Dallas had such a big cushion for that spot, but it was the right call. While the East’s 7 seeds have had a .516 winning percentage since 2010, that number is .570 in the West. Several of those West 7s were 50 win teams and forcing them into a play-in would be absurd. Still, in each conference, these teams belong and deserve that guarantee.

In the bubble, the ninth-place team needed to finish within four games of the 8 seed at the end of the regular season in order to force a play-in. That indeed happened, so we were treated to a play-in for Memphis and Portland, which put the latter into a first-round matchup with the Lakers. This was a great idea because it made those last several regular-season games count for the Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns, and even Spurs. In the East, only one team was invited beyond the eight-team playoff field (Washington) by virtue of being within six games of the eighth seed, and because they didn’t play well enough, we were spared the irrelevancy and dubiousness of a Wizards (25-47) versus Magic (33-40) play-in for a spot that really neither team deserved.

The Right Idea Gone Wrong

I recall far less criticism of the bubble’s play-in format. Even LeBron said he liked it! While it’s definitely backward that he’d be so against the 2021 version now that his team got involved, he has a point: the new format is not an improvement on the initial idea, it’s a regression. This year we saw eight teams battle for these last four spots but only three of them posted winning records in the regular season. Yes, both Memphis and Portland had losing records last season in their bubble play-in, but this was just two teams for one spot. That’s increased by a factor of four, and frankly, half of these teams just don’t deserve a playoff opportunity.

Los Angeles, Memphis, and Golden State definitely do. In the East, the last two spots are usually granted by default. It’s common for one of the East’s two lowest playoff seeds to be at or under .500. Sometimes both of them are. Washington played well down the stretch and finished at 34-38, good enough for the 8 seed since they possessed the tiebreaker over Indiana, who finished with the same record. They faced the disappointing Celtics (36-36) for the honor of seventh and lost, but still managed to snatch the eighth seed they qualified for last night. Predictably, all but one of the East’s play-in games were a bore; going through all that song and dance was really unnecessary.

This year’s ninth and tenth seeds in the East really have no business vying for a postseason spot: yes, Indiana finished with the same record as Washington and Charlotte was a game behind, but why should teams who finished four and five games below .500 be rewarded with a route into the postseason by winning just two more games? Their chances against the Sixers and Nets are no better than Boston’s or Washington’s, and as indicated by their records, these teams are just... not good. The regular season ended on Sunday, and all they deserved is to be told: thanks for playing guys, shoulda won more games.

Out West, it’s common for both teams to be several games above .500. As many know, the 42-30 Lakers are the West’s 7 seed, even with an identical record to the Mavs and Blazers, who both own tiebreakers. They narrowly defeated Steph Curry and the 39-33 Warriors for that seventh spot and a crack at the Suns, which they should have been given since they, you know, finished with a better record than the Dubs. Golden State came on really strong to end the year and finished with a winning percentage equivalent to 44.4 wins in a full 82-game season; they’re a legitimate eighth seed, but will have to prove it tonight against an also deserving 38-34 Grizzlies team. This is exactly the situation the play-in is meant for.

San Antonio also had the same record as Charlotte and faced that Memphis team on Wednesday a gaping five games ahead of them in the standings. The Grizzlies held off the Spurs despite surrendering the lead briefly in the fourth, but their quality season was almost ended at the hands of a team who they clearly outclassed the past 72 games. Instead, the Grizz should only be facing the Warriors, who claimed the eighth seed by just a single win. The Spurs didn’t belong: they actually lost ten of their final twelve games en route to “claiming” the tenth spot. Instead of collapsing down the stretch, they backed into a play-in berth by two games over New Orleans.

Thanks For Playing, Ten

Since the NBA adopted a 16-team playoff bracket in 1984, only two 10 “seeds” have ever posted a winning record. In fact, many more tenth-place finishers lost at least 50 games (one even lost over 60) than the few who even finished at .500; how can you make a case that the 20-62 Mavericks deserved even a slim shot at the postseason in 1998? Granted, the league has expanded significantly in these last four decades, but only once since the league expanded to 30 teams has a ten seed finished above .500, and just barely.

Were those 10s tanking since they had slim chances at a playoff spot? Perhaps. But how many more wins could we have expected from them? Were these teams really going to be able to take down their conference’s better teams 3 or 4 more times throughout the course of a season to get to .500 at its end? How many more wins could they have put up against teams who finished beneath them or near them in the standings? Just one look at their rosters will tell you: these teams just weren’t good. Finishing 10 out of 15 doesn’t deserve any sort of playoff path purely by default.

The Draft/Tanking Dilemma

There are further implications beyond just playoff seeding with the current problematic play-in format. Four of these eight play-in teams will have lottery picks, with slim-but-not-negligible chances at moving into the top 5: 8.5% at most for the team in the eleventh slot. If any of these teams manage to win consecutive games, claim a playoff spot, and see their pick drop to 15th or 16th, is it worth it when you could get lucky in the lottery instead? On the flip side, if the Lakers happened to lose consecutive games and finish in that fourteenth slot, is their improved draft position (currently they’d pick 23rd) a decent enough consolation? Or: how mad would we be if the Lakers move up 9 or more spots in the draft?

On a podcast appearance this week with Zach Lowe, ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy wondered if the current format could incentivize mediocrity: will teams try to just get close to the playoff for a play-in spot, rather than meaningfully try to compete by going on deep postseason runs? Is that truly better than tanking to those franchises and their fans? Lowe saw his point: small-market teams are apt to defend tanking as the only way to rebuild their teams and acquire talent that will result in playoff success. To take this back to the Bucks, imagine if the Kohl-era Bucks teams always had the option of going for the play-in. The M.O. in those years was already 8-seed-or-bust, so if that was replaced by the 10 seed, what might Larry Harris and John Hammond have done differently in those irrelevant seasons? Could they have traded future draft capital or young prospects in order to get to 35 wins?

How To Fix It

Last year, the NBA nearly got it right when they included the ‘within four games” qualifier, but that would have still granted chances to this years’ Spurs, Hornets, and Pacers. As I mentioned, none of these teams really belonged. I believe the league should return to the provision that a play-in only is triggered only for a ninth-place team that finishes within four (maybe even fewer) games from the 8 seed but also must finish at or above the .500 mark. Again, apologies to tenth-place teams, but when only two of 74 tenth-place finishers had winning records in the last 37 years, it’s not worth planning for.

Teams will still try to compete, but not merely for a play-in spot, but a respectable .500 record. If you’re determining how seriously to take a low playoff team, an equal number of wins and losses is certainly looked on more favorably than a losing record, especially when that 8 seed is 38-44 (like the 2015 Nets, for example). Wouldn’t it be better if teams—particularly in the East—were aiming for a winning record instead of the 39-ish wins (and 43 losses) it usually takes for the 8 seed?

This will eliminate the snoozefests between bad East teams as we saw this week. With my format, all we would have had this week would be a Warriors-Grizzlies showdown for the 8 seed in the West. The double-elimination idea from the bubble would have worked well: Memphis would need to win initially to stay alive, then both teams would have their seasons on the line as they fight for a playoff berth.

For all the NBA likes elimination games, what good are elimination games between Pacers-Hornets and Grizzlies-Spurs really doing for the league? That’s one winning team and three who are 4 or 5 games under .500. I can’t imagine Pacers-Hornets did well in the ratings on national TV. Maybe some bigger market teams would have those spots in future years for ratings, but are they actually going to be good teams? While I’m sure the NBA was thrilled to have a LeBron-Curry matchup in something resembling an elimination game (though it truly wasn’t), that’s also not going to happen every year. Plus, the East’s also-rans aren’t likely to garner high ratings unless they’re the Celtics, Knicks, Sixers, or maybe even the Bulls. Even then, would tons of Chicago households tune in to see a tenth-place Bulls team (which almost happened this year) try to win two games over the likes of Charlotte and Washington in order to just get rocked by Philly?

Recently on his podcast “The Old Man and The Three” (highly recommended, if you’re looking for new podcasts to listen to), NBA elder statesman and one-time Buck J.J. Redick remarked how enacting this format in a hastily-started, practice-light shortened season wasn’t a great idea. I tend to agree. San Antonio and Memphis were very affected by COVID-related postponements from the season’s first half and had a lot to make up in the second half. While the Grizzlies came out fine, San Antonio probably isn’t thrilled that the pandemic cost them a better chance at a playoff berth by virtue of a packed schedule. Plus, if we had ten more games, some of these play-in “races” would have become a lot clearer.

This entire season was unprecedented in many ways. Nothing the NBA instituted for a shortened season needs to become the norm, and while the play-in is a good idea given how competitive the West can be, the format the league devised for 2021 has to improve for future seasons.