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Why the NBA’s play-in tournament is so controversial

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Not everyone loves the play-in tournament, but do the critics actually have a point? The PtR staff discusses.

NBA: All Star-Saturday Night Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The play-in tournament has come under attack. Luka Doncic has questioned how fair it is and Mark Cuban has called it “an enormous mistake.” On the other hand, it seems to have positively affected tanking, since the top 12 teams in the two conferences are trying to win.

With the play-in almost a month away, do you think it’s actually a good idea that it’s still around or agree that could be unfair and should probably be abandoned going forward?

Marilyn Dubinski: Considering Mark Cuban was part of a unanimous vote to approve it ahead of the season, the fact that his team currently sits at 7th, and his history of flip-flopping on issues, it makes you wonder if he only doesn’t like it because his team is in that 7th/8th seed and could possibly lose what would otherwise be an automatic playoff appearance. That being said, I get where they’re coming from with regards to the extra stress it’s putting on players just for the chance to likely lose in the first round while giving the first and second seeds yet another advantage beyond sheer talent and home-court advantage.

I also get the point of having the play-in tournament the last two seasons: to give teams a chance who may otherwise have been at a disadvantage if they didn’t get the entire allotment of games in. (The Spurs were such a team heading into last year’s Bubble, which made making it even more of an uphill battle that it already was.) However, beginning next season, assuming everything starts on time and the season isn’t compressed, I have no issue eliminating it and going back to the way things were. (If the league really wants to give more teams a fair shot at the playoffs, they should look at either eliminating conferences all together or just taking the top 16 teams regardless of conference, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Mark Barrington: I understand what Luka is saying, and Mark Cuban has some great points. But the fact is that the NBA is an entertainment league and the play-in is great for keeping many more fan bases interested late in the season as only a few teams will be eliminated before the last few weeks. The downside is the additional stress and injury risk.

The truth is that none of the teams in the 7-10 play-in range have any realistic chance to win a title, so a coach that mortgages a team’s future to make it into that range is either worried about losing their job or is a poor coach. Those two things are often correlated. Teams that are at the edge of making the playoffs need to rest and conserve their players, because the promise of an additional game or two, or even a series where they would likely get swept by a top seed, isn’t worth endangering the long-term health of the players. I don’t think that Pop is going to pull out all of the stops just to make the post-season, but he still has a decent shot at the team rolling into the 9 or 10 slot, picking up a lottery pick and playing a game or two to get playoff experience for the young guys. In any case, as long as everyone finishes the season healthy, this can be a good season for the Silver and Black. I feel sure that health is the main concern of the coaching staff and the trainers. The players want to win every game, but I doubt Pop will play anyone extended minutes for the rest of the season, because it’s nowhere near the Spurs’ time to contend.

Bruno Passos: Maximizing revenue, dissuading tanking, and making the regular season matter as much as possible for as many teams as possible—does the play-in round do enough of that to justify the extra strain on players’ bodies, diluting the postseason field, and generally being a weird wrinkle you have to explain to unfamiliar fans? I don’t think so.

Cuban has a case that I mostly agree with, but it would’ve been a bit more compelling delivered back in December. Now it mostly rings like the owner of one of the teams in the play-in mix who’s miffed that making the postseason now requires pushing his oft-injured center and asking more out of his high-usage cornerstone than he’d like.

That said, he’s not wrong that the league should move away from the play-in round. It made for a fun wrinkle in the Bubble, but I’m not a fan of four extra teams who, like Mark says, are likely going to be food for a top seed.

Jesus Gomez: I think the league has to always try to find the balance between having rules that make sense from a competitive standpoint and doing whatever it takes to make money. With the pandemic having a big effect on the NBA’s bottom line, it’s not surprising that the play-in was preserved. It’s just a perfect way to get more attention and some extra revenue to the league. So considering the circumstances, it seems like it was inevitable to make it a part of the season. It was probably considered a necessity by people like Mark Cuban, strangely enough, because the economic aspect likely took precedence over everything. After all, that’s the reason we had an All-Star game and have a condensed schedule, which is surely a bigger reason for stress, both mental and physical, for players than the play-in.

Going forward it should not be necessary. If the play-in is preserved past this season, assuming things go back to normal, then we’d have to discuss how it makes the game, not the product, better. Doncic is right that the regular season seems to be the best way to determine which teams deserve to make it to the playoffs and there’s no reason to add that much uncertainty to the equation after months of competition. It’s good to add the possibility for upsets, but not to this degree. Five-game first rounds instead of going seven games? Sure. A 10-seed that is six games back from the seventh getting hot from three and ending the season of a better team? Seems excessive to me.

J.R. Wilco: Last season, I thought the NBA had a great case for the play-in. Covid had turned the world, and the league, upside down, teams finished the season having played different numbers of games, and the need for some level-setting was logical and defensible.

I think the same argument can be made for this season, but extending it beyond would be not just silly but gimmicky. What’s the point in enduring the marathon of an 82 game season if not to determine which team has earned the right to enter the postseason? Continuing the play-in beyond the Age of Covid would do more damage than good.