The NBA Play-In Games Were Pointless And Dumb

LeBron James, talking about the play-in tournament that his Lakers were unable to avoid as a result of tiebreakers in their three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference, said “whoever thought of it should be fired.”

For the Lakers, this made sense, because in any normal season where the top eight teams simply get into the playoffs, James and Anthony Davis could’ve been shut down for the regular season, and if the Lakers finished seventh, so what? They’d still be in the playoffs with no concern.

As it stood, they had to make a stretch run to stay in the top six—one at which they failed, because injuries don’t magically heal because the team needs the hurt players—potentially risking injury that would actually cost them in the playoffs.

It turned out they just beat the Golden State Warriors, got in, and that was that.

Meanwhile, going 10 deep in each conference was a fool’s errand as well. The 33-39 Charlotte Hornets didn’t belong in a playoff conversation, and neither did the San Antonio Spurs, who lost to the 38-34 Memphis Grizzlies and went fishing.

Sure, the Grizzlies beat the Warriors to steal the 8 seed, but since when did grabbing an 8 seed matter in the NBA playoffs?

Other than the 1999 Knicks, who made the Finals in the lockout-shortened season that taught us nothing because a 50-game regular season isn’t an 82 or even 72-game sample, no 8 seed ever made serious noise in the playoffs. The 1994 Denver Nuggets and 2007 Warriors pulled shocking first-round upsets but crashed out in Round 2 in each case.

Getting the right to get smashed by the Utah Jazz is hardly worth the Grizzlies winning two ballgames that nobody cared about. And it certainly wasn’t worth the defending champions being forced to be in a less-than-ideal position for a 1995 Rockets-esque attempt at a defense of their title.

The ’95 Rockets, of course, were a 6 seed in their playoff tournament, the result of injuries and their aging roster struggling to find their footing in the regular season. They still won the championship before yielding to the second Chicago Bulls three-peat between 1996 and ’98.

Granted, the 7 seed isn’t normally a place from which teams make deep playoff runs either.

Since 1984, when the NBA expanded the playoffs to its current 16-team format, the 7 seed has won just five first-round playoff series in 74 tries (37 in each conference.) Only one of those was a best-of-seven (Spurs over Grizzlies, 2010); upsets were more common when the first round was just a best-of-five.

The 7 seed has made just one conference finals; Seattle got swept by Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1987.

Granted, the Lakers are not any of those old 7 seeds. They lead the Phoenix Suns 2-1 in their current series as of this writing, as Chris Paul‘s playoff legacy threatens to diminish his first season over the Superstar Line of .200 WS/48 (CP3 hit .201) since 2018. One of the greatest point guards who ever lived, a guy who earned the nickname of Point God, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, once again stands to be tarred with the “can’t win in the spring” brush.

The point of all this, however, is that both 7 seeds made the playoffs and needed just one win over the 8 seed in the play-in game to get there. Sure, a 9 seed beat an 8 seed in the West, but Golden State and Memphis had identical regular-season records so the play-in game became less about “didn’t belong in the playoffs” and more “tiebreaker the old-fashioned way”, which is absolutely an idea basketball should consider exploring in future seasons when the 8 and 9 seeds (and 10, and 11, however many they need to put in if there’s a gnarly multiple-way tie, and use a stepladder format if they have to) finish with identical records.

But ultimately, although a win-or-go-home game is inherently entertaining, “the right to get stomped by the 1 seed or, at best, crash out in the second round” isn’t exactly relevant and instead encourages risking player safety for no useful reason.

The NBA needs to put this play-in tournament idea to bed and treat it as a one-off (or, I suppose, a two-off, because there was the play-in game in the bubble last year in the West) aberration resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

They might even want to consider cutting the playoffs back down to 6 teams per conference like it was before 1984, although I doubt the revenue that comes from letting 8 teams per conference into the party and the minimum 16 and maximum 28 extra games that come along with it are going away anytime soon. If they do this, however, there should absolutely be tiebreaker play-in games in that instance. Imagine if Dallas, Portland, and the Lakers, who all finished 42-30, had to play musical chairs to eliminate one of the three teams.

The first round is already too long, though, so unless they want to cut it down to four teams per conference and make it super-exclusive like baseball, we’re still going to spend two or three weeks waiting for the games between actual contenders to start.

The point of all this is that LeBron was right. Whoever thought up the idea of the 2021 play-in tournament should be fired. It was pointless and dumb and ultimately had no real effect on the actual playoffs other than to hurt player safety in a regular season that was already too tightly packed even with just 72 games in the season.