LeBron doesn’t have to like it, but the NBA play-in format is working

Perspective is everything when it comes to analyzing the NBA play in format.

Opinions on the play-in tournament change once a team realizes it might be them in the seventh or eighth seed.

Both Mark Cuban (earlier this season) and LeBron James (two days ago) expressed disgust with the NBA’s play-in tournament at almost the exact point in the season when their teams seemed headed for seventh place.

The subtext couldn’t be more clear: The play-in is great, until our team has to be involved.

“Whoever came up with that shit needs to be fired.”-LeBron James after the Lakers fell to the 6th seed in the Western Conference.

LeBron doesn’t have to like it. You and I don’t have to like it. Personally I think it is a bit gimmicky. The need for it a year ago in the NBA Bubble was necessary due to the inequalities in games played due to the Covid shortened season. But nonetheless, the NBA play in format is exceeding expectations.

What’s clear already from the lead-up to the play-in format is that 1) it’s working spectacularly well, and 2) there are virtually no negative unintended consequences.

This extra dash of salt in the NBA playoff race has produced excitement at nearly every level of the standings. The most important is that teams in the ninth through 12th spots are actually trying in late-season games because they have something to play for instead of resting veteran players with suspicious “tendinitis” cases in a quest for more ping-pong balls in the upcoming lottery.

Teams like Toronto, Chicago, Washington and New Orleans would have given up a long time ago in the previous format because they’d have virtually no shot at the eighth seed. Instead, they have been fighting to try to reach the 10th position and the play-in.

In the case of the Wizards in particular, it’s given us an unlikely dose of late-season magic and some rays of hope for one of the league’s most forgotten franchises. Without the play in format, we do not see the historic display from Westbrook night in and night out. He and Beal would probably be resting and gearing up for next season.

Meanwhile, teams in the fifth through eighth positions can’t rest on their laurels either. A veteran team in the Lakers’ position, for instance, might have been content to glide into the playoffs as the seventh seed and deal with whatever the bracket handed them. A play-in tournament shifts that logic quite a bit, both in terms of risk (they could end up in eighth or not in the playoffs at all) and schedule (the top six teams get a week off).

So yeah LeBron, Mark Cuban, and Portland can hate on the format this season, since they have the most to lose. But those other teams that had been on life support since February are still alive and have a punchers chance of making the playoffs. In a world that loses interest in seconds, the more meaningful games played, games played with urgency throughout the season, equates to money and attention for the NBA.

As a result, we’ll likely be seeing the best of Portland, Dallas and L.A. during the home stretch, as each tries to avoid being sent to the play-in bracket. Friday’s tilt between Portland and the Lakers now looks particularly juicy. Same for Miami and Boston in the East, where last season’s conference finalists are battling the Knicks for the five through seven spots. Boston and New York play each other the last day of the season, a game that previously would have had “we just want to be healthy for the playoffs” vibes but now could be massively important.

The fact that only six teams are truly out of playoff contention has been a huge blessing overall. One of the league’s biggest scourges — depressingly bad late-season games featuring glorified G League rosters for both sides — has been much less of an issue this season.

In fact, one of the side benefits is what we’re not talking about: tanking. Most notably, we’ve hardly heard a peep about the Thunder’s mad dash for the third-worst record and maximum ping-pong balls, which has seen them go 2-22 with a staggering minus-18.5 scoring margin since March 23. The Rockets have gone 5-39 in its last 44 outings, and it hasn’t been spoke about on any of the major media outlets.

Debates about tanking and how to fix it normally dominated the late-season discussion pre-play-in, and there’s a reason for that: The playoff race, for the most part, just wasn’t that exciting. That’s completely changed, and it will only heighten during these final games.

Moreover, we’re going to get some real excitement in the form of the play-in tournament itself. I’ve seen this described as a negative because if the ratings-boosting Lakers (and to a lesser extent, the Celtics) aren’t in the playoffs, then it seems like an own goal for the league. I disagree.

First of all, if the Lakers finish seventh and still can’t qualify for the playoffs, it means they weren’t good enough to earn a split against two .500-ish teams out West. Presumably, that also means they wouldn’t have good enough to last more than five games in the first round against the No. 2 seed. You’re not talking about missing out on a 20-game playoff run here.

Also, even if we only get two Lakers playoff games, those two games will surely deliver a lot more bang for the buck. A Lakers-Warriors single-elimination game for the playoffs, for instance, might outdraw an entire first-round beatdown in the 1-8 or 2-7 brackets.

Could you imagine the ratings the Warriors and Lakers would get in a two game matchup? Curry trying to take down LeBron and AD by himself? It would probably be the highest rated series the NBA has to offer outside of a Nets-Lakers Finals.

Meanwhile, there’s the best-case scenario of the league of the Lakers going through the play-in and still making the playoffs, which is by far the most likely scenario, and the one that generates the most eyeballs for the league.

In reality, a seventh-seeded Lakers team would get two home games, likely with LeBron and Anthony Davis, against .500-ish opponents (probably Golden State and then Memphis) and would need to lose both to miss the playoffs. If that were the case, they almost certainly weren’t good enough to do anything noteworthy in the postseason anyway.

Also, to the larger point, why should we care so much about how this impacts the 2020-21 Lakers in particular? Wouldn’t we all be saying how amazing this was for the league if the Lakers and Knicks were both in ninth?

Overall, I’d say the play-in tournament’s impact on regular-season incentives has been about as positive as the league could possibly have imagined. Whoever came up with that shit needs to be promoted, not fired.

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