NBA Play-In gets underway amid derision from players but with positives for fans

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·5-min read
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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Luka Doncic thinks it’s pointless. His Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called it “an enormous mistake”. LeBron James thinks “whoever came up with that s*** needs to be fired”.

Yet, with public high-profile dissenters and private reservations just as pronounced, the NBA’s Play-In tournament gets underway on Tuesday night.

Brought in after the briefest flirtation during last season’s bubble finale, the 2021 play-in tournament is a means of determining the 16 play-off teams from the Eastern and Western conferences. While those that finish in the top six of each conference take guaranteed play-off spots, numbers seven to 10 enter the play-in, which begins on Tuesday night. Previously, the top eight in each conference would all be granted play-off berths.

The nature of this mini-tournament will explain why - and when - derision has come about. At the time of Doncic’s comments, the Mavericks were in danger of missing out on the top six in the West. Similarly, a downturn in form for the Lakers saw the defending champions drop to seventh, cueing up LeBron’s public admonishment of an idea he had previously floated.

The kicker for the Lakers came after Sunday’s final round of the regular-season with the Mavericks, Portland Trailblazers and Lakers ending on a three-way tie of 42-30 (wins-losses). Mavericks took fifth by virtue of winning the Southwest Division, while Portland’s 2-1 season series wins against both put them sixth, leaving LeBron and co out in seventh by the skin of their teeth.

No doubt the King’s comments won’t be forgotten in a hurry. And while he was pilloried for what many viewed as a sense of entitlement, this might just be another example of the vision possessed by one of the game’s greats. Because as much as he regarded the play-in as an avoidable nuisance, deep down he would have known the basketball gods had a sense of humour to reunite him with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night.

The Warriors finished eighth in the West: arguably the most valuable spot in both conferences. You’ve finished far enough away from the top six to not feel hard done by and with the insurance of a second chance for the play-offs. The winner of the seventh vs eighth automatically moves to the play-offs, while the loser plays the winner of ninth vs tenth to determine the final spot.

Thus, what we the consumer have is a series of pseudo Game Sevens and the inherent jeopardy and madness only they can provide. Such an artificial concoction may be uncouth for the traditionals, but for us drama kings and queens, to have so much riding so early in the post-season is like a succession of whiskey chasers before the real session gets going.

In many ways, the Warriors are a great advert for the play-in. Klay Thompson’s torn right Achilles during pre-season set them back, and results had them more or less out of the post-season running. But a late charge, marshalled by Curry and an April like no other, has carried them to within one or two shots of the top table. More immediately, the rest of us are now giddy at another LeBron vs Curry do-or-die.

That Curry was able to flex so effectively and willingly owes in some part to the play-in’s olive branch to the bottom-half. A criticism that seems peculiar to other sporting cultures has been head coaches lamenting not being able to rest players ahead of the play-offs. Roughly translated, it has meant no dead games, and in a season with limited attendance and arguably limited highlights, that can surely only be a good thing.

At the same time, the increase to 10 teams with a shot at the title has built on the draft lottery to make tanking that little less desirable. Again, it may be something more amenable to a non-American audience, but anything to discourage teams from trying to lose games in order to achieve better draft picks is unequivocally a good thing.

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Another positive by-product is fresh talents like rookie-of-the-year contender LaMelo Ball (Charlotte Hornets) and last year’s winner Ja Morrant of the Memphis Grizzlies now given the opportunity to show the mettle they possess as tenth and ninth in the East and West, respectively. By broadening opportunities to the rest of the league, teams not necessarily regarded as challengers may have a better chance of building rosters rather than losing promising players, who invariably grow too big and impatient for their surroundings, to established franchises.

One of the criticisms of the usual eight-and-eight play-off which was brought into effect for the 2016 season is that bigger teams could sleepwalk to the Finals. Establishing their dominance early and holding firm, no real care of how skewed home advantage was during a seven-game series because rested stars could make that obsolete. Now it has to be earned from start to finish.

Nevertheless, a lot will depend on how the next six games play out. By the time the play-offs begin on Saturday 22 May, all eyes will be fixed on a post-season proper, but the conversations over the future of the play-in will have begun in earnest.

At the time of writing, the approval for the play-in was granted by the league’s board of governors for this season alone. And though talk is that judgements will be made solely on problems that do or do not emerge, a league that pays close attention to its players will seek their counsel before any provisions are made for next season.

The fear is that should LeBron or another high-profile player find himself out of the reckoning by the weekend, it may be dead in the water. The pandemic has hit NBA finances hard, with Forbes reporting a drop in earnings from $8,800million in 2019 to $7,920m in 2020. Fiscally, it makes sense to guarantee as many superstars in the play-offs as possible. Thus, a play-in that ramps up meritocracy for a few by jeopardising the best could be hoist by its own petard, no matter how fun it may be.

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