NBA Play-in Tournament
Kevin C. Cox Pool Photo/USA Today Sports

Last season the NBA implemented a play-in tournament due to the Covid-19 pandemic causing the season to be shortened. It was the only way for the NBA to ensure that team’s still had a fair shot at making the playoffs in a season that was not like any others. The way the tournament worked was that if the nine seed was fewer than four games behind in the standings, a play-in tournament between the eighth and ninth seeds would be triggered. For the right to the eighth seed, the current eighth seed would need to defeat the ninth seed once or the ninth seed would need to defeat the eighth seed two games in a row to advance. It incentivized teams that would otherwise not have any real shot at making the playoffs to go all out for a chance at qualifying for the tournament.

The play-in tournament occurred between the Portland Trailblazers and the Memphis Grizzlies and it was must-see TV. Both teams had fought hard down the stretch of their eight remaining games in the schedule and neither team wanted to be set home missing out on the playoffs. This game was everything that fans wanted in a late-season basketball game that we haven’t seen since the Denver Nuggets vs Minnesota Timberwolves 2018 win or go home game. It was a game with high stakes and a purpose, something that often doesn’t happen as the season winds down and teams look to take it easy down the stretch or tank for draft positioning. Instead of that, we got a thrilling game that went down to the wire.

Why the NBA Play-in Tournament Is A Good Thing

The NBA decided to bring back the play-in tournament this season because once again it was not possible to do an entire 82 game season due to scheduling restrictions if the league has plans to get the 2021-2022 season on track. The tournament was slightly expanded to include seventh and tenth seeds but the rules remained relatively the same. The league’s owners unanimously decided to approve bringing the tournament back but recently there have been discussions that bringing the Play-in Tournament to an already condensed season was an enormous mistake in hindsight according to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Luka Doncic, star guard from the Dallas Mavericks also expressed concern about the tournament being quoted as saying I don’t understand the idea of a play-in” to ESPN reporters.

Doncic and Cuban are looking at it from a biased perspective because the Mavericks have underperformed this season and unless they are able to rise to the sixth seed they would be in danger of missing the playoffs due to the tournament. But outside of their complaining, there are a few reasons why the play-in tournament is actually a good thing for the NBA and its fans. It truly does give the team’s a reason to not pull the plug on the season and look to tank instead it has given multiple organizations and fanbases hope that they could make a playoff appearance. We saw at the trade deadline that the increased chance of fighting for a playoff spot has changed the way front offices were thinking at least for this season.

The Play-in Tournament Promotes Competitiveness

Teams like the Sacramento Kings decided to keep their veteran players instead of shipping them off to contending teams for late-round picks because there is actually a chance that they could end the longest playoff drought in the NBA. In a regular 82 game season, the Kings as things currently stand would be way out of the picture as the 12th seed, six games back from the eighth seed. But instead, the team and the players recognize that they only need to beat out two teams to get their chance. The same could be said for the Chicago Bulls who were very active at the trade deadline trading for All-Star center Nikola Vucevic in an all-out push to make the playoffs this season. When in other seasons their tenth seed in the standings would give them nothing to play for.

The play-in tournament promotes competitiveness from teams that would otherwise be resting their stars and doing anything possible to lose as many games as they can. The NBA often has a problem in the late part of the season when most of the playoff teams have separated themselves leaving the rest of the teams with nothing to play for and the fans of those teams doing draft simulations on Tankathon. The play-in tournament guarantees that there will be at least something to play for late in the season and give fans a reason to care in what would otherwise be a lost season for their lower-seeded teams. Most first-round series often end with their higher seed winning between the first and eighth and the second and seventh matchups. The play-in tournament at least provides some excitement for what would otherwise be a snooze fest.