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Monday, April 10, 2023

The 2023 NBA Play-In Tournament: Grab Your Popcorn and Savor the Mediocrity!

The 2023 NBA Play-In Tournament features the seventh seeded teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences (Miami Heat and L.A. Lakers respectively) facing the eighth seeded teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences (Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves respectively). Each of the winners of those two games qualifies for the playoffs as the seventh seeded team in that conference, and will face the second seeded team in that conference in a seven game first round playoff series. Each of the losers of those two games will get a second chance to qualify for the playoffs by facing the winner of the battle between the ninth seeded teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences (Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans respectively) versus the 10th seeded teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences (Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder respectively), while the losers of the games featuring the ninth and 10th seeded teams are eliminated.

The NBA began using the Play-In Tournament in this format in 2021. The seventh seeded team has yet to lose a game in either conference, and the ninth seeded team has yet to lose to the 10th seeded team. The ninth seeded team has defeated the eighth seeded team three times in four games. No team that qualified for the NBA playoffs via the Play-In Tournament has extended a playoff series to seven games, much less actually win a playoff series.

In short, the Play-In Tournament is a showcase for teams that spent 82 regular season games proving their mediocrity, and no Play-In Tournament team has proven to be anything other than mediocre.

In the Eastern Conference, I predict that Miami will defeat Atlanta, and Toronto will defeat Chicago. Then, Toronto will defeat Atlanta to earn the eighth seed. The Miami Heat not only enjoy homecourt advantage, but the Heat have the same core players who reached the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat have struggled with injuries and uncharacteristic inconsistency this season, but they have a better and deeper team than the Hawks. If there is a Play-In Tournament team that could actually win a playoff series--a doubtful proposition, as noted above--the Heat are that team. The Raptors have endured a disappointing season, but they should be able to win two games to salvage this campaign by at least earning a spot in the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks' run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals was a fluke: they went 41-41 that season, and followed that up with records of 43-39 and 41-41 the past two seasons while cycling through four coaches since 2020.

In the Western Conference, I predict that the L.A. Lakers will defeat Minnesota, and New Orleans will defeat Oklahoma City. Then, New Orleans will defeat Minnesota to earn the eighth seed. The media narrative that it is an accomplishment for the Lakers to earn a spot in the Play-In Tournament is baffling; the Lakers feature two players selected to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team: failing to qualify for the playoffs outright is embarrassing, and losing in the Play-In Tournament should be considered unacceptable. The Utah Jazz' "B" team eviscerated the Lakers in the paint by a 76-50 margin in the last game of the regular season with playoff positioning on the line for the Lakers, putting a dent in the notion that the Lakers have become some kind of defensive juggernaut since the trade deadline--but the Lakers won the game, mainly because of some improbable three point marksmanship (8-14) from LeBron James, who posted one of the lowest three point shooting percentages of his career this season, and who made at least five three pointers in a game just five other times all season long. The Lakers have performed better recently because Anthony Davis has been healthy and thus has been active at both ends of the court, but the Lakers are what their overall record suggest that they are: at best, a lower tier playoff team.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have never been known for their collective basketball IQ--to put it charitably--but their multiple meltdowns during the last game of the season are as baffling as they are damaging: Rudy Gobert was sent home at halftime after punching teammate Kyle Anderson, and Jaden McDaniels fractured his hand by punching a wall. Somehow, the Timberwolves still beat the Pelicans, though perhaps that is not shocking considering that the Timberwolves often played better this season without Gobert. McDaniels is likely out for whatever remains of the Timberwolves' season, while Gobert's status has yet to be publicly determined.

If James cannot lead the Lakers to a home win against the dysfunctional Timberwolves, even his staunchest allies in the press corps will have a difficult time buying whatever excuses he offers.

The Pelicans are talented and scrappy even without the perpetually injured Zion Williamson, and I like their chances to beat the Timberwolves in a rematch of the regular season finale.

The NBA does not include Play-In Tournament statistics with either their regular season statistics or their playoff statistics, which reinforces the reality that these games are less about competition than about an opportunity to make more money--and we know that the NBA cares about profits more than anything else. For the record, in 2021 I correctly picked three of the four Play-In Tournament qualifiers (Boston, Washington, L.A. Lakers), and in 2022 I correctly picked three of the four Play-In Tournament qualifiers (Atlanta, Brooklyn, Minnesota); to review my previous Play-Tournament predictions and commentary, check out the links below.

Previous Play-In Tournament Articles:


The NBA is (Usually) Fantastic (Except When Teams Bench Their Starters for the Season's Last Game) (April 11, 2022)

Nets Clinch Seventh Seed After Outlasting Cavaliers, 115-108 (April 12, 2022)

Notes on the 2022 NBA Play-In Tournament (April 14, 2022)


Thoughts on the NBA's Play-In Tournament (May 17, 2021)

Nine Versus Ten Does Not Add Up to Fantastic Basketball (May 20, 2021)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM



At Monday, April 10, 2023 2:13:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...


Thanks for the good laughs I had while reading this post. You hit it on the spot when you pointed out that the league doesn't officially count the statistics of these Play-In games. If I were a player like Jayson Tatum, who had a 50-piece in the 2021 Play-In, I wouldn't be too happy that this scoring performance doesn't get officially recorded.

It's really baffling for the league to not keep track; maybe they'll start collecting Play-In records/stats in the future, but I certainly hope that the league will do away with this entire Play-In concept in later years (I doubt it though because revenue $$$).

I'm just echoing to what some of your other readers have commented on the other posts, but I too must emphasize how the NBA has become a subpar product this season due to the tanking, load management, three-point obsession, etc. This 2022-23 season was the first regular season in my adulthood years where I stopped tuning into the once-obligatory weekly TNT broadcasts. Aside, the Thursday Inside the NBA crew is legendary, but I don't have any issues with the Tuesday crew either - it's clear the TNT execs are getting ready to groom Lefkoe and others to take over their main show whenever that time comes. My issues with the nationally televised games stem from blowout games and/or the main star(s) aren't playing due to "rest".

From the All-Star Weekend atrocity to the watered-down regular season, it is no longer the same product that many fans (especially educated ones) and I have enjoyed for most of our lives. As you noted in your ASG recap, those numbers (e.g., Jayson Tatum's "record-breaking" performance) are inflated and should have an asterisk next to them. Unfortunately now, it seems like this sort of thinking must be in effect when evaluating regular season numbers and performances due to the inflated stats in now more meaningless games.

The league office can try their best to justify their actions through the ever-increasing revenue and dollars they're generating in a more global market, but the NBA game itself has become more than compromised. I can definitively say that I had a more fun time watching last year's FIBA Eurobasket tournament than this year's NBA. Just sad!

At Monday, April 10, 2023 3:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NBA is obviously about money first. I don't think not counting the play-in game stats reinforces that though. I don't know how you'd characterize these games. They probably need a separate category, which nobody would care about. If they counted for the regular season or postseason, it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the players that don't play in these games.

Some of what you say about the Lakers/James is accurate, but from where they were at during the season, making the play-in games is an accomplishment. Sans Westbrook, they're 18-9 over the last 1/3 of the season, which would amount to 55 wins over a full season and the #1 seed in the West. They've obviously had lots of injuries. If James/Davis stay healthy, they're definitely a threat. Everyone in the West is vulnerable. But, winning 4 playoff series without any homecourt advantage probably en route to winning a title seems nearly impossible.

At Monday, April 10, 2023 3:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome!

It is interesting to note that the more the NBA game becomes "compromised," as you put it, the more that players not born in the U.S. are dominating. The top three MVP candidates this season were all born outside of the U.S. Many American players have lost sight of the fundamentals.

We also see this in FIBA play, where U.S. teams increasingly rely on athleticism and superior talent to win, because many of the teams from other countries are actually more skilled at basketball.

J.J. Redick, Amin Elhassan, Zach Harper, and others who mock the old school players simply betray their ignorance every time they open their mouths to compare today's players with the players from previous eras: if you let the old school players get away with traveling, flopping, and flailing, they would put up record-setting numbers in today's game--and if you forced today's players to play in the 1980s under 1980s rules today's players would not be putting up the numbers that they are putting up now.

At Monday, April 10, 2023 4:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If the NBA ascribed competitive significance to the Play-In Tournament games then they would count the statistics in some fashion. Even the preseason statistics are kept, and can be found in team media guides.

Whose fault is it that the Lakers were so terrible at the midseason point? Part of the problem is the biased media narratives. Let's be clear that the Lakers' main issues revolve around James and Davis (1) staying healthy and (2) playing hard on a consistent basis (in terms of defense and team success, not just stat-padding).

I am not sure what to make of the Lakers' recent record. They have won games against tanking teams, they have won games when James did not play--they clearly did not miss his volume three point shooting and often indifferent defense--and then when they faced the Clippers (sans Paul George) with playoff positioning on the line they lost.

Let's see the Lakers get out of the Play-In Tournament (which should not be difficult) and then see how they perform in the playoffs before being so sure that this is a 55 win quality team. If a team starts the season 1-0 then their projected record is 82-0; I understand that 27 games is a bigger sample size than one game, but I have also noted why this 27 game sample size may not be so meaningful.

I agree with you that the likelihood of this Lakers team winning four playoff series without homecourt advantage is very, very low.

At Monday, April 10, 2023 8:30:00 PM, Blogger Todd Ash-Duah said...

Todd said,

As a longtime Oklahoma City Thunder fan, I am so excited that we are in the Play-In Tournament (even if it doesn't last long), seeing as that most analysts and experts had us finishing with one of the worst records in the league (although I must say even as a fan of the team that I did not expect the Thunder to be this good this early).

I wanted to get your take on Shai Gilgeous Alexander's game, and if this current Thunder core can match/exceed the success of the 2010's Thunder teams with Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka.

At Tuesday, April 11, 2023 1:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Thunder's record this season is surprising, particularly after two seasons of tanking.

Gilgeous-Alexander's game continues to blossom. This season, he set career-highs in scoring, field goal percentage, steals, and blocked shots. He can play multiple positions, and he does not have any skill set weaknesses. The only downside is that he has already played five seasons without accumulating much playoff experience. He has not had the benefit of developing his game while being a part of a winning culture. Also, the Thunder's record the past two seasons with him out of the lineup is better than their record with him in the lineup. The sample size of games is small, but the next step for him is to have a greater impact on winning and to gather more playoff experience.

At this point, it is very premature to compare this Thunder team to the Thunder team that made it to the NBA Finals once and made four Western Conference Finals appearances. Let's see this team get past the first round before we start comparing this team with squads that were perennial championship contenders.

At Tuesday, April 11, 2023 1:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, and obviously more money is made with more games, but the money issue that NBA only cares about money doesn't seem relevant here. It was a byproduct of COVID that has continued. They wouldn't count preseason stats either then.

Whose fault it is, is irrelevant. From where the Lakers were after 55 games to where they finished is extremely good. The media's bias didn't cause them to win 18 of the last 27 games. Every team's stars need to remain healthy for that team to excel. They exchanged some pieces and figured something out for the last 1/3 of the season. Whatever they did is working overall. 27 games is also not a sample size and I'm not sure what to make out of it, but I'm also not sure what to make of any team right now. They don't look like the best team in the West, but with their current cast and if they remain reasonably healthy, they look like a team that can beat any other West playoff team. Nobody in the West scares me, and every team has issues. Any of the top 7 teams could beat each other potentially. Doubtful they do much, and doubtful they win 4 playoff series especially without any homecourt advantage in any round likely if they made it to the Finals. But, it's also doubtful any team in the NBA wins 4 playoff series.

At Tuesday, April 11, 2023 3:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A different version of the Play-In Tournament was first used during the COVID year (2020), but a major driver behind continuing to use the Play-In Tournament is the extra revenue that it generates. It is also supposed to curb tanking, but I see little evidence to support that notion.

I did not deny that the Lakers finished the season well, nor did I suggest that media bias "caused" their wins. My point is that media bias impacts the narratives surrounding their season. We are being told (1) Russell Westbrook was the major reason that the team struggled, (2) the Lakers desperately needed more outside shooters, (3) the departure of Russell Westbrook caused the team to be better, and (4) Westbrook is washed up, at least in terms of being an above average player.

The evidence does not support any of those narratives. The Lakers struggled because James and Davis are inconsistent in terms of both health and commitment to playing hard at both ends of the court. The Lakers' three point shooting percentages during the recent good stretch are not much different than their previous three point shooting percentages. The Lakers improved not because Westbrook departed but because Davis became healthier and more engaged, which in turn improved the team's defense. The Clippers installed Westbrook as their starting point guard, and they maintained their position as a playoff team (not a Play-In team like the Lakers) despite losing Paul George to injury.

I disagree that the Lakers can beat any team in the West. Assuming that the Lakers survive the Play-In Tournament (which they should do, and which I expect them to do), I expect the Lakers to lose in the first round. Over the course of an entire season, the evidence suggests that they are a .500 team that has hit a hot streak recently, not a legit contender. The players who the Lakers added are limited role players, not players who are going to consistently perform at a high level for a whole season or a whole playoff run. Also, the availability and energy level of Davis and James are recurring questions.

At Wednesday, April 12, 2023 1:27:00 AM, Anonymous Eric said...


That MIN/LAL game was the pinnacle of mediocrity. I haven’t seen such inept coaching until tonight from Finch. His lack of adjustments or creating a set play was a big reason for their loss. The Wolves players played the last five minutes trying not to lose instead of trying to win. The Lakers had absolutely no business winning this game tonight. Can’t wait to see these Lakers get spanked by the Grizzlies in six games.

If I were a diehard Lakers fan, I wouldn’t be too pleased with the LeBron era despite the “bubble ring”.

At Wednesday, April 12, 2023 1:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The game was pathetic, and I am working on an article about it so I won't comment much more about it here. However, I would say that I am not sure that the loss is Finch's fault. In-game "adjustments" are a bit overrated. As Shaq noted during the post-game show, when Karl Anthony-Towns has a mismatch he has to demand the ball, and his teammates have to give him the ball. I doubt that Finch is instructing players to throw the ball out of bounds and jack up low percentage shots.

The Lakers were unimpressive, and I find it noteworthy that they celebrated this win so much.

At Wednesday, April 12, 2023 10:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not talking about narratives. The media's bias is irrelevant from where they were after 55 games to where they finished. How they finished is a success, especially relative to their record after 55 games. The Lakers record is considerably better without Westbrook, so the evidence actually indicates they're better without him. Whether that's true or not is another matter and probably not so simplistic. The Clippers were 11-10 with Westbrook, about on par with their whole season. George was injured at various times throughout the season, not just after Westbrook joined.

I'd expect the Lakers to lose 1st round, too. No team in the West looks like a legit contender though. Memphis looks very vulnerable and Adams is out, and their record isn't that much better than the Lakers.

At Wednesday, April 12, 2023 11:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A team that has two members of the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team but struggles to qualify for the playoffs is not a success. Finishing in the bottom half of the playoff bracket almost guarantees a first round loss. LeBron and the Lakers both publicly assert that their main goal is to win a championship. From the standpoint of the season overall, 2023 is a failure for LeBron and the Lakers, unless the team goes on a very improbable postseason run.

The media's biased narratives matter because the biased narratives frame the conversation, and can even become woven into the "official" history of the league if the biased narratives gain wide acceptance.

The evidence does not indicate that the Lakers are better without Westbrook. The evidence, as I have repeatedly stated, shows that the Lakers are better when James and Davis play in the paint at both ends of the court. If James and Davis had done that early in the season, the Lakers would have finished with a better record than they did. Whether or not Westbrook started, how many three pointers Westbrook shot, or how many turnovers Westbrook committed had little impact on the Lakers' record.

If Westbrook had played for the Lakers last night and accumulated the numbers that his replacements did, the media narrative would be that Westbrook nearly cost the Lakers the game--but because of the media's biased narratives, the coverage of the game ignores how terribly his replacements played.

I don't know why LeBron lobbied to acquire Westbrook and then decided to make Westbrook a scapegoat, but that is clearly what has happened, and it is wrong--and media members are wrong for going along with that biased narrative.

Regarding Westbrook's performance with the Clippers, the media's biased narrative after the Lakers traded Westbrook was that Westbrook is no longer an effective starting point guard and that as a "vampire" in the locker room he would destroy any playoff caliber team foolish enough to sign him. Instead, Westbrook is now the starting point guard for the fifth seeded team in the West. That media narrative about Westbrook was false.

False media narratives matter. NBA coverage is not life and death like coverage of other matters, but I am offended when media members distort the truth about any subject.

If you are not bothered by false media narratives, then why are you here? Feel free to enjoy the biased media coverage that reinforces your limited understanding of the sport. It is obvious that you are not going to be persuaded by logic, and it is just as obvious that I am not going to be persuaded by nonsense.

At Wednesday, April 12, 2023 12:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't say the season was a success. I said the finish was a success. Do you really deny 18-9 isn't a successful stretch? Nobody is saying the season is a success so far. Everyone's goal is to win a title.

James/Davis were both injured and missed 27 and 26 games, respectively. Westbrook was a bad fit for the team. The rest of the cast cannot carry the team to many wins with the star(s) playing. What do you expect? If James/Davis were healthy for most/all of the season, the Lakers are easily a 50-win team. James is 38. What he's doing at his age is unprecedented. Of course he can't be the best player on a contender anymore.

I don't know what conversation you're talking about, but my conversation has nothing to do with the media.

I'm not disagreeing with how you think the Lakers should've played the whole season. But, 18-9 sans Westbrook isn't evidence the Lakers are better without him? I wouldn't necessarily buy that argument without knowing anything else, but that's some pretty obvious evidence. Just because you're fed up by the biased media doesn't mean to just disregard everything else that would feed into them.

Who said I wasn't bothered by false media narratives? The media had nothing to do with my/our conversation. I don't even pay attention to almost anything NBA media related, fyi. Not once did I say Westbrook isn't a good player or washed up. I still think he's a decent player. But, his former team improved considerably once he left, and he was a bench player for a team that was 25-30. There's more to the story that you're leaving out to your readers. That's not 'nonsense.' The ironic thing is you often do this to fit your narrative.

At Wednesday, April 12, 2023 12:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You asserted that the current version of the Lakers is a 55-win quality team. In my reply, I stated why I am reserving judgment before making that conclusion.

I am not sure if the Lakers' closing run is significant or not. When they needed to beat the Clippers to secure a playoff spot, they lost. When they needed to beat Minnesota to secure the seventh seed, they won in very unimpressive fashion. Did the Lakers look like a 55-win quality team to you last night?

Championship trophies are not given out for 27 game stretches or for finishing the season strong, or for what your record is after making a trade. The season can only be fairly judged in total. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both on the team for the whole season, and the team has had a mediocre season up to this point. If LeBron cannot be expected to carry a team, then perhaps he should not be receiving a salary commensurate with the salaries given to players who are expected to carry teams (and the same could be said of Davis).

The media narratives matter and seem to influence your perspective, whether or not you believe that you care about such narratives. Why else would you be impressed by a 27 game stretch? Many media members are impressed by this stretch, but--as I keep saying--I will reserve judgment until the playoffs are over. I already made my prediction about the overall impact that the trade would have. Let's see if the Lakers prove me wrong.

I also predicted that if Westbrook went to a good team that used him correctly then he would make a positive contribution, and thus far that prediction has been correct--but here I also reserve judgment until we see what happens in the playoffs.

I said that you are not bothered by false media narratives because you keep speaking of them in dismissive tones. The Lakers' 27 game stretch is only impressive if you buy into those narratives. The Lakers traded a future Hall of Famer to acquire a bunch of role players, and after doing so they squeaked into the playoffs as the seventh seed. Why should anyone be impressed by that? Are the Lakers going to win even one playoff series with this group? Do they have a realistic chance to win the 2024 title? Are the new players good enough to help Davis win a title after LeBron retires?

Since LeBron arrived in L.A., he led the team to one Bubble title (and that does count positively on his resume) but in all of the other seasons the Lakers have been mediocre at best. He has a major say in player acquisitions, and most of the moves have not panned out. He regularly makes excuses for his performances and the team's performances.

Just imagine any other star player having LeBron's resume over the past several years. Would any other star player be treated with kid gloves by the media the way that LeBron is?

You many not find that question relevant or interesting, but I do.


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