The Annual Anti-Play-In Games Rant

If ever there were a concept in sports that bore repeating until the sun burned out its supply of hydrogen and the Earth burned up in the corona of a red giant star enveloping it in five or ten or however many billion years the solar system has left, it is this:

The NBA Play-In Tournament is STUPID with a capital stupid.

You could make the argument that the Eastern Conference at least hasn’t made a complete garbage fire out of it this year, as the 10th-place Atlanta Hawks stand 37-37, making all four play-in teams at least over .500.

But at the same time, does anyone seriously believe that even the current 8 seed Brooklyn Nets, with their 38-35 record and history all season long of making a dog’s breakfast out of team chemistry, stand a chance in the first round against a Miami Heat team that was in the Finals two years ago?

What on Earth is the point of adding two extra teams to an “exciting” playoff tournament that essentially amounts to those unwatchable April games between teams mired in Mediocrity Hell, except for higher stakes?

But no matter. If this were just about the Eastern Conference, let the Hawks win two games and then set about shocking the world like they did last year on their way to the conference finals.

No, what really sets the play-in tournament apart for the utter stupidity of it all is the Western Conference.

As this goes to press (through games of Friday, March 25), the Pelicans and Lakers stand tied for ninth at 31-42, set to play each other in a game that affords the winner the chance to meet the winner of a 43-32 Minnesota Timberwolves team and the 36-39 Clippers.

About the only thing the West can provide now is comedy value if the Wolves choke and miss the playoffs for the 17th time in the last 18 seasons.

Because in a normal year, Minnesota has already clinched a playoff spot, and they’re far enough ahead of the Clippers that they could even decide to “mini-tank” if they wanted to avoid the Suns in the first round and instead face the Grizzlies and Warriors (or, if standings hold and they pull off the upset over a fading Golden State team, the Nuggets) in the first two rounds.

Instead, Minnesota has to risk injury to Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards for no good reason, simply because being seventh, 11 games over .500 and seven games up with seven games to play over the 8 seed, no longer gets a team into the playoffs.

Likewise, Denver has been fighting the injury bug all year. Nobody on the Nuggets has appeared in every game this year; indeed, nobody has cracked the 70 game mark for a team with 74 in the book so far.

If it were just Denver and Minnesota jockeying for the 6 and 7 seed to see who faces what opponent at that end of the bracket, both teams could be at their absolute best for those series.

Instead, they have to fight a fierce battle with each other so that what…they can play one team that’s respectably under .500 (in a 30-team league with 16 playoff spots, something like 39-43 isn’t all bad) and possibly have to play a complete garbage fire just to make the playoffs?

It’s not fair to teams that play well to put them in this kind of scenario. They should be competing for a title, full stop.

You might be able to talk me into an 8-9 play-in game, but even that’s stupid considering that “a for-all-the-marbles game for the right to get swept in the first round” isn’t exactly compelling television in its own right. Just get to the playoffs.

But how far does this rabbit hole go? With the Lakers and Pelicans at 31-42, that means any team that hasn’t lost 51 games yet is still technically alive for this stupid play-in thing. That includes the 13 seed Kings, currently 26-48 but completely mathematically alive if they win out…and go 34-48.

A 34-48 team doesn’t even belong in the fringe of the conversation for the playoffs. No team that bad has made the postseason since the 1988 Spurs, who went 31-51 and placed eighth in a conference that only had 12 teams.

The NBA is needlessly having teams risk injury to their stars, diminishing the value of the playoffs, all so they can put on a couple of extra games and presumably disincentivize tanking, never mind that it’s still better to have one ball in the draft lottery than guarantee yourself the 15th pick. Sure, the 15th pick has given us Steve Nash, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo (in 1996, 2011, and 2013 respectively), but it’s also where Frederic Weis (he of the face full of Vince Carter crotch at the 2000 Olympics) went in 1999.

By contrast, wouldn’t you rather be the 1993 Orlando Magic, who were the last team out of the playoffs but ended up drafting Chris Webber first overall and trading him for Anfernee Hardaway?

Or maybe you’d like the be the 2008 Bulls (Derrick Rose), 2011 Cavaliers (who got a pick from the Clippers that turned into Kyrie Irving) or the 2019 Pelicans (Zion Williamson)? If the play-in games had been around back then, those teams (including the ’11 Clips) might’ve ended up in the postseason.

If the goal of the play-in tournament is to create entertaining basketball in March and April, it’s dumb. If the goal is to disincentivize tanking, it’s better to have a shot, no matter how small, at the first pick rather than being guaranteed the 15th pick.

If the goal is to jeopardize player safety, or if the goal is to try and maximize TV money from airing a game between stinker teams, or if the goal is to give participation trophies to as many teams as possible (even with the play-in games, 20 teams making the postseason out of 30 isn’t the highest ratio of playoff teams to total teams in even the last 35 years), then mission accomplished.

Let’s get rid of this stupid play-in tournament. It’s pointless and dumb.