The Whiteboard: 5 reasons NBA needs a play-in tournament

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images /

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There is no perfect solution for the NBA as it looks to resume play in the coming months; no matter what format the league chooses, someone is going to have something to gripe about.

In the next week or so, commissioner Adam Silver will continue his conversations with the board of governors, owners and players to try and reach the “best” decision possible, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski illuminated on Tuesday.

There are major pros and cons for each proposal, and regardless of the format the NBA ultimately chooses, none of this matters if it can’t be done safely, with frequent if not daily coronavirus testing that doesn’t come at the expense of the broader public.

With that being said, a play-in tournament for the final playoff seed would be just the right dose of exciting without upending the more traditional postseason format.

For our purposes, here’s how the NBA’s play-in tournament would work:

  • The top-seven teams in each conference are automatic playoff locks
  • The bottom-eight teams in each conference are entered into their respective play-in brackets, seeded by record and appropriate tiebreakers
  • All 30 teams would play 3-5 regular-season games leading up to the play-in tournament to get everyone back in rhythm
  • Single-elimination tournament until the semifinals and championship round, which would be a best-of-three series
  • Winners of the tournament serve as the 8-seed in each conference

Now that we’ve touched on the logistics, here are five reasons the NBA needs to seriously consider such an experiment, especially under the given circumstances.

1. It gives lottery teams a reason to play

Safety should come first, but the NBA also wants as many teams as possible to return for financial reasons. The problem is, even if the league only sets a low threshold like 70-72 games for capping off the rest of the regular season, most lottery teams will see little incentive to putting themselves and their families at risk for a meager 3-8 games, especially if they’ve already got little or zero change of making the postseason. Damian Lillard has already gone on the record about that, and he’s not alone in feeling that way.

A play-in tournament would give all 14 current lottery teams a shot at making the postseason, which should provide more than enough motivation for those on the fence to get back in shape and play hard in meaningful, high-stakes games again, even without fans in attendance.

Maybe Dame and Zion Williamson want to prove they could’ve closed their teams’ 3.5-game gap on the 8-seed if they’d been given enough time. Maybe Devin Booker wants to silence some of that ill-informed “good player, empty stats” chatter. Maybe the Sacramento Kings want to capitalize on their chance to end the league’s longest active playoff drought, asterisk be damned. In a postseason where everything is up in the air, there’d be even more incentive for teams on the outside to try and get hot to see if they could make a run under extenuating circumstances.

2. It gives fans a reason to watch lottery teams play

Finding a way to justify all 30 teams showing up to the Walt Disney World bubble is one thing, but doing so without diluting the product is another. Even in this sports-starved society, bad/rusty basketball will be impossible to ignore for even the good teams after an extended hiatus. Staying in shape has been difficult for the players, and playing basketball regularly has been completely undoable.

However, aside from the whole “basketball is back!” angle, a play-in tournament would make fans more keen to tune in with a vested interest beyond “Let’s see how the Atlanta Hawks do with Clint Capela as Trae Young’s pick-and-roll partner!” or “How many times will Draymond Green yell at Andrew Wiggins in his 15 minutes of action today?”

Suddenly, the Suns or Kings can end their playoff drought, the Minnesota Timberwolves can watch Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell team up in meaningful games and hell, even the floundering New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls have a shot! Sure, some of these teams are just plain bad, but watching them scrap and compete in games that actually matter would be a delight for fanbases that were already resigned to their seasons being over.

3. The other formats are more flawed

No matter which avenue the association takes, each one has its share of flaws.

Hold regular-season games for all 30 teams to meet certain financial thresholds before traditional playoff series? The risk of a coronavirus outbreak in the NBA bubble dramatically increases, and plenty of non-playoff teams won’t view the reward being worth it if they have to undergo weeks of quarantine, training camp and then meaningless games with no prospect of actually making the playoffs.

Jump straight into the playoffs? The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings would have legitimate beef if they never even got a chance to close their 3.5-game gap on the 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, who were coming up on their roughest stretch of schedule before the season was suspended. Even the current 16 playoff squads might grumble about not having any tune-up games before diving right into postseason contests with real consequences.

Set up a group stage featuring 20 teams, World Cup-style? As much sense as it makes on paper, it might be a tough too revolutionary given how unorthodox everything else feels right now. The bubble, playing games without fans, not having home-court advantage, possibly shortened playoff series — all of it will be foreign to players and coaches alike during these trying times, so complicating things further might be asking a bit much.

The play-in tournament mixes up the status quo just enough to make it worth the current lottery teams’ while, but also ensures the changes aren’t too drastic to get everyone in an uproar.

4. It’s still relatively fair

Reading this as a Grizzlies or Orlando Magic fan, you’re probably already close to grabbing the torches and pitchforks. And it’s true: The biggest potential flaw of a play-in tournament, aside from the COVID-19 risks of bringing all 30 teams into a bubble, is unfair treatment for the 8-seeds who were well ahead of their competition before play shut down.

Memphis (3.5 games ahead) and Orlando (5.5 games ahead) may not like it, but being forced into this tournament should still actually bode well for them. Despite only being 30-35, the Magic boasted a 25-9 record against teams below .500 this year — basically who they’d face in this tourney. If you can’t beat Jim Boylen, the New York Knicks’ 17 power forwards or Bradley Beal and a bunch of third-string Wiz kids in a best-of-three series, you probably don’t deserve to make the playoffs as a sub-.500 team anyway.

As for the West’s 8-seed, Grizzlies fans shouldn’t be so quick to forget they were coming up on their toughest stretch of schedule to close the season. Meanwhile, the Blazers were just about to get a healthy Jusuf Nurkic back, the Pelicans were finally grooving with a healthy Zion and the Kings had won seven of their last 10 games before the hiatus.

Maybe they wouldn’t have made up that ground on Memphis, but with about 15 regular-season games to go, it’s a pity we didn’t get to find out. This is a fair way to make up for it, and a best-of-three series gives the Grizz the chance to prove they deserved to make the cut regardless. Their 24-13 record against losing teams suggests they do, as does their 19-22 conference record that’s better than any Western lottery team except Sacramento.

5. It’d be fun as hell

Dame, Trae, Zion, Beal, Booker, KAT Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox, KAT, Stephen Curry, Zach LaVine and RJ Barrett all playing in meaningful games with a possible playoff berth on the line; the Spurs trying to keep their incredible 22-year playoff streak alive; the Suns and Kings attempting to end their own postseason droughts; the bitter Grizzlies and Magic aiming to prove they should’ve just started the postseason as is.

The storylines would be great, as would the drama and the fun. The NBA has room to experiment here, and the play-in tournament would be a great way to do so without going overboard on trying to reinvent the wheel.

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Mark Cuban suggested a play-in tournament for the final two playoff seeds in each conference, though that would be pretty unfair to his 7-seeded Dallas Mavericks, who are 7.0 games ahead of the Grizzlies in the 8-spot and 11.5 games ahead of ninth place out West.

In case you haven’t read it yet, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor valiantly advocated for that World Cup-style group stage idea, which might be the most sensical approach if people aren’t too afraid of change.

Michael Jordan contradicted himself on the Isiah Thomas-Dream Team controversy, and now up is down again.