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Monday, May 17, 2021

Thoughts on the NBA's Play-In Tournament

The NBA utilized Play-In games as part of the resumption of the 2019-20 season in the Orlando "bubble." The concept involved giving the teams that were contending for the eighth seed a reason to come to Orlando and compete (the teams that were completely out of contention were not invited to the "bubble"). The "bubble" experiment was deemed successful, and the NBA decided to include a Play-In Tournament with the compressed 72 game schedule in the 2020-21 campaign.

Under this season's rules, the top six teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. The seventh seed has homecourt advantage in a game versus the eighth seed, with the winner of that contest receiving the seventh seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of the game between the ninth seed and the 10th seed to determine who gets the eighth seed. Thus, the teams that finish seventh or eighth have two chances to play in to the playoffs, while the teams that finish ninth or 10th must win two games in order to get the eighth seed. It may sound complicated, but the process is straightforward.

What is not straightforward is determining the implications of the Play-In Tournament. In the "old days," the top eight teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs while the remaining teams went into the Draft Lottery. Sustaining excellence--or, at least, sustaining a record above .500--over the course of an 82 game season meant something; the long grind of the NBA season followed by seven game playoff series meant that the best teams worked their way to the top. Now, a team can display consistency over the course of the season only to be eliminated from playoff contention in one game or two games.

Thus, the NBA not only has a Draft Lottery but it also has a form of a playoff lottery, similar to the NCAA Tournament, in which an inferior team can benefit when the superior team suffers foul trouble or an injury. The legendary Willis Reed moment in the 1970 NBA Finals happened in game seven, but he suffered the injury prior to that, and his Knicks were routed by the Lakers in game six; if that great series had been a one game showdown then the outcome may have been different (depending on when Reed suffered the injury, whether he could play, and how both teams reacted to the situation with the championship up for grabs in one game). More recently, the Lakers lost game three of the 2000 NBA Finals versus the Pacers when Kobe Bryant was unable to play due to a sprained ankle, but the Lakers won the series in six games. Over the course of a series, the best team generally wins, but in a one game winner take all scenario the outcome is more randomized.

The NBA may believe that randomized outcomes will increase attendance, TV ratings, and revenue. Also, the Play-In Tournament does not directly affect the championship (unless one of the participants improbably advances all the way to the NBA Finals), so the randomization is confined to the lower portion of the playoff bracket.

Nevertheless, the Play-In Tournament devalues the regular season games. Teams in the lower portion of the standings do not have to try hard every game; they only have to win enough games to finish 10th and then try their luck in the Play-In Tournament--and that 10th seeded team that only tried hard during some games may still get hot, beat the ninth seed, and then knock out a seventh seeded team that played hard every night to finish seventh. 

The main purposes of the Play-In Tournament are (1) generate more revenue by having more games and (2) discourage tanking by creating an incentive for teams to chase the 10th seed. Despite the influx of "stat gurus" into NBA front offices, the league is starting to understand that it is an awful look when nearly half of the teams are tanking either because a playoff berth is out of reach or because some teams would rather hit rock bottom (to have the best chance at getting a top draft pick) than get the eighth seed only to be swept in the first round. However, even the fact that tanking does not work has not stopped teams from tanking, so at this point it is not clear how to get tanking under control.

Time will tell if adding these Play-In Tournament games generates more revenue, but it probably will. It will be more challenging to discourage tanking because it is difficult to legislate competitiveness: if teams do not want to compete then they will find (or create) reasons/excuses to not compete. Some people argue that the Play-In Tournament has decreased tanking this season, but I am skeptical; I think that the Play-In Tournament has just changed who is tanking and why they are tanking. 

We are seeing some of the teams at the top of the standings resting players because they either do not know who they will play in the first round (remember, the seventh and eighth spots are now up for grabs among four different teams) or they do not care who they will play in the first round. "Resting" players who are healthy enough to play is a form of tanking. The NBA has come a long way--and not for the better--from the days when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls went all out to go for their 70th win after they had long since clinched home court advantage (and after they had won a then-record 72 games en route to the NBA title the previous season); the Bulls lost that "meaningless" game that was anything but meaningless to anyone who is a bona fide competitor: Jordan played nearly 40 minutes and Pippen played nearly 38 minutes. If some of today's star players had played for the 1997 Bulls then the Bulls might have spent a month "resting" before the playoffs. 

We are seeing teams in the middle of the playoff standings selectively resting players to arrange (or avoid) specific playoff matchups. 

We are also still seeing teams that are outside of playoff contention blatantly tanking to try to get the number one overall draft pick.

Sit back and enjoy the drama as one of the league's best teams "rests" its stars versus a bottom feeding team that is putting out its worst possible lineup! It is hard to beat a game such as the recent "showdown" between the L.A. Clippers and the Houston Rockets; fans who paid for tickets to see Kawhi Leonard and Paul George must have been ecstatic to see Jay Scrubb make his first NBA start (I am not making up that name, and I mean no disrespect to Mr. Scrubb--who I am sure worked very hard to reach the NBA--but fans are not paying top dollar to see him play).

There is a wise old saying that if you mess with the basketball gods then the basketball gods will mess with you. If there is any justice, the basketball gods will smile on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks--who are embracing the challenge of facing the Miami Heat team that eliminated them from the playoffs last season--and the basketball gods will not look too kindly on teams that are trying to take a shortcut to a championship by avoiding certain matchups. 

This tanking nonsense will continue as long as the fans keep paying for it by buying tickets, buying merchandise, and supporting the media providers who pay the NBA a fortune for the right to broadcast the games.

The tanking issue has sadly become a deep-rooted problem, but there is a way to make the Play-In Tournament more equitable for the teams battling for the eighth seed. Jeff Van Gundy suggested that the Play-In Tournament should only involve the eighth and ninth place teams in each conference, and that an eighth place team should be able to qualify for the playoffs automatically by finishing far enough ahead of the ninth place team. I agree that the seventh seeded team should not have to participate in the Play-In Tournament, and I agree that if the eighth seeded team can create enough separation then the ninth seeded team should be eliminated from consideration. 

There used to be a little time after the regular season ended to write a thoughtful playoff preview, but now the first round begins the day after the final Play-In Tournament game concludes. This compressed season has been so disrupted by "health and safety protocols," injuries, and load management/tanking that it may not be possible to accurately predict what will happen in the playoffs, but the mad dash from Play-In Tournament to the playoffs makes a difficult (but enjoyable) project even more challenging.

What are my predictions for the Play-In Tournament? The disjointed nature of this season makes it hard to figure out who is really healthy and which teams have built up sustainable chemistry, but I am going to go chalk for the most part: in the West I expect the Lakers' size and talent to prevail over the Warriors, the Grizzlies to win their home game against the Spurs, and the Warriors to beat the Grizzlies; in the East I expect the surging Wizards to upset the mercurial Celtics to take the seventh seed, the Pacers to beat the Hornets, and the Celtics to defeat the Pacers to sneak in as the eighth seed. Thus, I expect the current seventh and eighth seeds in both conferences to ultimately make the playoffs, with the Celtics and Wizards flipping positions.

As an NBA fan for over 40 years, will I watch the Play-In Tournament games? Of course. I watch great NBA basketball, good NBA basketball, and bad NBA basketball, so I will watch these games, too. The games will probably be competitive and entertaining, and the league's media partners will no doubt go into hype overdrive, particularly if there are spectacular plays and close finishes--but the existence of the Play-In Tournament (and the reasons why it exists) are symptomatic of why so many long-time fans do not think that today's NBA is better than the NBA of yesteryear. It used to be a badge of honor to play all 82 games--and to play hard in all 82 games. The fact that this seems like a quaint, outdated notion is sad--and if there are doctors, trainers, or anyone else who will assert that "science" has provided new insights about the need for players to rest, then I have a simple solution: cut back the length of the season to whatever the new "science" deems to be healthy, fine teams a significant amount of money every time they "rest" an otherwise healthy player, and use the fine money to refund the ticket prices paid by fans who expected to see Kawhi Leonard but instead saw Jay Scrubb. That way the players will be healthy, and the fans will only pay top dollar to see top players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:05 PM



At Tuesday, May 18, 2021 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I don't have a strong opinion on the Play-in tournament. I see both sides. I'm always open to more competitive games, however, I understand the implications if this setup is implemented permanently. I pretty much agree with everything you said though.

As for the games, the only thing I see happening differently is the Hornets beating the Pacers and losing to the Celtics in a close game.

At Tuesday, May 18, 2021 4:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In the long run, I don't believe that the Play-In Tournament will make the games more competitive; the games will be more competitive when owners, coaches, and players want the games to be more competitive. If the NBA keeps the Play-In Tournament, each season will be different in terms of which teams are tanking/load managing, depending on the standings at a given time.

Nothing will surprise me in the Play-In Tournament, because foul trouble or a sprained ankle could end up being the deciding factor. If the teams are reasonably close to full strength and nothing odd happens, I think that my picks are logical, but something could go haywire and every pick I made could end up being wrong despite being logical.


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