NBA Play-in Tournament Matchups Made It a Hit and It Could Become Permanent

  • The NBA’s play-in tournament for the final playoff spots has been a hit so far.
  • The tournament has featured superstar players over two years and produced big TV ratings for the NBA.
  • This is the first time it will be used over an 82-game season, and while it has critics, the tournament is likely here to stay.

The three most turbulent seasons in NBA history have produced one positive, potentially long-lasting outcome: the play-in tournament.

Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told Insider that the NBA had considered a play-in tournament for years but never saw the opportunity to do it until the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. With teams not playing the full 82 games in the Disney bubble, the league felt it was fair to allow the eighth and ninth seeds a chance to  “play in” for the playoffs if they were within four games of each other. Getting extra games to televise didn’t hurt, either.

The league continued the play-in last year during another shortened, 72-game season, this time expanding the tournament to include the 7-10 seeds competing for the seventh and eighth playoff spots, regardless of how close they were in the standings.

Over two years, the play-in has produced quality games, big TV ratings, and even boosted competition during the regular season.

The play-in is back for the 2021-22 season, and a successful tournament this year could make it a permanent fixture of the league.

“We decided to move it forward into this season again on a one-year basis to see how it works with an 82-game season, which we had never done before,” Wasch said. “We’ll evaluate after this year and determine if it warrants continuing.”

The play-in has produced memorable matchups

The NBA is thrilled with what the play-in tournament has produced so far.

In the bubble, it featured a scorching-hot Damian Lillard, who had become appointment television, willing the Portland Trail Blazers past the Memphis Grizzlies to secure the eighth and final playoff seed.

Last year, the Western Conference was once again the side to watch, as LeBron James and the Lakers played Stephen Curry and the Warriors for the 7th seed. James hit a game-winning three over Curry to secure the Lakers’ playoff spot in a thrilling matchup between the game’s two biggest stars.

LeBron James dribbles the ball while being guarded by Stephen Curry in 2021.

 

LeBron James and Stephen Curry were part of a marquee play-in matchup last year.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

While the Eastern Conference matchups weren’t as thrilling, fans still tuned in. Wasch told Insider that the six play-in games last year averaged 2.5 times the number of viewers for nationally televised regular season games. The Warriors-Lakers play-in game averaged 6 million viewers and was second only to the Christmas game between the Lakers and Mavericks, according to Wasch.

This year’s slate looks promising for the league once again.

In the East, a turbulent regular season has put the star-studded Brooklyn Nets in the tournament. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving figure to be big draws. Young stars like Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks and LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets will also be playing for the playoffs.

The Western Conference will feature All-Stars like Paul George of the LA Clippers and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

While the Lakers tumbled in the standings and missed the cut altogether, the play-in tournament kept them alive for weeks longer than they would have without it. The NBA surely would have loved James and company playing in another single-elimination game.

“We don’t wanna be overly confident in the play-in because you get a Lakers-Warriors matchup that generates significant storyline and fan interest,” Wasch said. “That won’t necessarily happen every year. But obviously this year we’re seeing some compelling storylines as well. So I think there’ll be an ebb and flow to it based on the teams that fall into it.

“But I think what we’re seeing in our league right now — what I love seeing, as a fan, is the talent level and the depth of quality across teams is so much greater than it’s been in many years in the past, perhaps in part, because of the play-in.”

The play-in has changed team-building calculus

Giving middle-of-the-pack teams something to play for late in the season seems to have already produced positive results in the NBA.

One NBA team executive told Insider in January that the play-in has encouraged teams to remain competitive.

“In a league now that has a play-in tournament, it’s changed the whole nature of this discourse,” the executive said. “There was a time when it was just a foregone conclusion that you would tank, because [you’re] not gonna be able to win in the playoffs.”

The executive added: “It’s no longer black-and-white — you’re-in-it-to-win-it or you should suck — because you can be sort of lukewarm good and still have something to play for, still have reason to compete.”

Some teams’ moves prior to the trade deadline reflected this thinking. The New Orleans Pelicans traded for veteran guard C.J. McCollum, a 20-point-per-game scorer who has helped them get to ninth place in the West, and thus, qualify for the play-in.

CJ McCollum yells in celebration during a game in 2022.

 

CJ McCollum’s arrival has helped the Pelicans make the play-in tournament.

Gerald Herbert/AP Images

The LA Clippers acquired guard Norman Powell and forward Robert Covington, two reliable veterans that bolstered their roster. There had been speculation that injuries might drive the Clippers to tank and “reset” for next year — they went the other way.

Wasch said creating a more competitive regular season was a “huge component” to the play-in. The league has struggled with tanking, as its draft system still rewards the worst teams, even with reformed lottery odds.

“Now, for a lot more teams, they can see opportunity to get to 9 or 10, which still gives them a chance,” Wasch said. At the time Wasch spoke to Insider in March, 25 teams were still in the playoff picture.

“There really are only a handful of teams that are truly out of it at this stage of the season … and I think that’s a positive for the game as well.”

Even with its warts, the play-in may be here to stay

Karl-Anthony Towns looks on during a game in 2022.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves are in the play-in tournament — for better or worse.

Eric Christian Smith/AP Images

The play-in isn’t without critics, as some believe it unnecessarily punishes lower playoff seeds.

Some fans and analysts have noted that the Timberwolves could suffer from it. The Wolves currently sit in seventh place, 11 games over .500 and 5.5 games up on the eighth-place Clippers. Without the play-in, the Wolves would have a playoff seed sealed. Instead, they’ll play a dangerous Clippers team that is getting healthy for the playoffs. Should the Wolves lose, they’ll face the winner of the 9-10 matchup. It’s a strenuous task for a team that otherwise would be locked into a first-round matchup with the 2-seed.

Wasch and the NBA aren’t terribly sympathetic.

“If you wanna earn a playoff spot without playing the play-in tournament, finish in the top six,” Wasch said, noting that the seven-seed has an advantage by getting to play two home games.

Wasch said both the NBA Board of Governors and players’ union has so far been satisfied with the play-in. He noted that they will have to approve it going forward, but with higher TV ratings and must-watch extra games, it seems unlikely to change.

As the same executive told Insider in January: “The play-in tournament has worked.”

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