As this article goes to press on the evening of April 29, the NBA has on its hands a fascinating look into the wisdom of choosing a four-team play-in tournament to decide the final two playoff spots in this truncated 72-game season.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are tied for the sixth spot at 33-30. In the Western Conference, the Dallas Mavericks hold a half-game lead, 34-27 vs. 34-28, over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal; the big race would be 8 vs. 9 to determine who gets to either get stomped by the 1 seed or, if the world goes bananas like it did during the 1999 lockout season or in 1994 or 2007, to shock the world.
But this year, the difference between the 6 and 7 seed is the difference between “you are in the playoffs and have nothing to worry about but the 3 seed”—the Milwaukee Bucks in the East and Los Angeles Clippers in the West—and “you are going to have to win at least one out of two do-or-die games in order to make the playoffs.”
Part of the problem the NBA has with its regular season is that by the middle of March, most teams don’t really have anything to play for. The top squads may fight over home-court advantage, at least if there’s not a clear dominant team that’s out there winning 65 games or more like the peak late-10s Warriors or the ’92, ’96, or ’97 Bulls, and the lower seeds may be deciding whether to make a run at the playoffs or get an early start on the offseason by shutting down their best players, but in the middle, there’s a whole lot of playing out the string once it’s pretty obvious who’s going to be a mid-seed and who’s going to get a home playoff series in Round 1.
By introducing an element of win-or-die into the mix, the NBA has killed two birds with one stone.
For one thing, expanding the pool of playoff teams to 10 per conference means even some truly awful teams—looking at you, 28-34 Washington Wizards, although to be fair they started out 6-17 and are 22-17 since then, two completely different teams in a lot of ways—get to keep their playoff hopes alive and hope to make some noise once the playoffs actually start.
It also means that the teams below Washington in the standings—the Chicago Bulls and “Toronto” Raptors are both 26-36, as only three teams are truly beyond hope in the East—have a reason to keep fighting for that 10 spot and the faint hope of getting into the real dance once the play-in games are done.
Granted, this isn’t perfect—the 10 seed Golden State Warriors, at 31-31, hold a four-game advantage over the New Orleans Pelicans with just 10 games left in the season, giving the Pellies a reason to hope they get more help in the lottery—but if the goal was to keep fan interest in bad teams alive for longer than would otherwise be the case, mission accomplished.
But more importantly, it means that “mini-tanking”—the not-so-subtle art of lower-seeded teams trying to engineer a scenario where they can choose their first-round opponent—is dead. You can’t tank your way out of the 6 seed and into the 7 seed because, for example, you think the Bucks are more dangerous than the Nets in a 7-game series.
Do that this year and you have to beat the 8 seed and the winner of the 9-10 game just to punch your ticket at all, and you might end up trying to duck into the Nets only to, at best, face the Sixers and at worst face telling your fans why you’re all watching the playoffs on television, fan and player alike.
Plus, the 8-9 seed fight is still a relevant one because the 8 seed can lose a game and still make the playoffs while the 9 seed has what in college at the free throw line they call a one-and-one, where you have to make the first to attempt the second.
The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs are tied at 31-30. Golden State is just half a game behind them. That race matters.
Likewise, in the East, the Indiana Pacers stand 29-32, just half a game back of Charlotte, at 30-32 and holding the 8 seed. Those races matter in an outsized way now.
That is, if you place any credence at all in the idea that a 7 or 8 seed matters in the grand scheme of the playoffs. Sure, there were the ’99 Knicks, going all the way to the Finals before losing to San Antonio as Tim Duncan and David Robinson got their first rings, but other than that?
Well, six teams is about as deep as you can practically go for a team that “turns it on in the playoffs”, and that’s an exceptional case when it happens.
Yeah, the ’95 Rockets won the title after finishing sixth in the regular season, but they were the defending champs and had injury problems throughout that second run.
Realistically, unless the world’s gone mad, your Finals teams are going to at least be hosting first-round playoff series if not dominating in the regular season. The exceptions always seem to have massive extenuating circumstances that aren’t really common outside of their own specific scenario. An injured defending champ. A 50-game lockout season. A 72-game season with the last eight regular-season games in a bubble (see the 5 seed Heat making the Finals in 2020.)
Which is why this whole “generate excitement for the playoffs in more cities” thing, while an excellent hook for fans of small-market or underachieving teams, comes off as contrived and a little silly.
After all, if the NBA just went back to a six teams per conference playoff format and gave the top two seeds first-round byes like the 6-teams-per-conference playoffs in the NFL, would it really change anything in terms of who won actual championships?
You could argue that if you’re only playing barely .500 basketball in the regular season, it’s downright dumb to expect that you’ll make any noise in the playoffs, especially if, unlike football, you’ve got an 82-game regular season and four 7-game series to win in order to get that ring.
The bigger the sample, the more the cream rises to the top. Which is why ultimately, yeah, it’s entertaining as all get out to have 6 be the new 8 in terms of playoff security, but it’d make more sense not to have play-in games but instead to just save everyone a lot of generally pointless first-round playoff basketball and get to the part where actual contenders play each other instead.