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Debating the Play-In Tournament concept with the Matrix

Discussing the fairness of the play-in with a basketball buddy.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

In my Sunday morning basketball game, we have had a bunch of good nicknames. A former FBI guy turned attorney was “Thunder Dan”. A tall white guy became “Mosgov”. One season, the local lawyer’s league decided to name a most valuable player for every single game — and one our players who “won” that odd designation became “MVP John”. ”Tall Dan” is, well, tall.

But the best nickname was bestowed on the athletic 23 year-old son of another player (nicknamed the “Stopper” for his self-proclaimed defensive prowess). The 23 year-old would seemingly change shape in mid-air to steal a long pass, come from nowhere to block a shot, or contort his body to finish a drive. He became “Matrix”. Along with his athletic skills, Matrix (and his father the Stopper) are both very knowledgeable about the NBA.

Matrix won some intramural championships while at Duke, which meant most of his college friends are on the East Coast. Unfortunately, that led him to relocate his Matrixy skills from SoCal to the Big Apple (where he is now 30 and lives with his fiancée) We still stay in touch, often when I distribute one of my Pounding the Rock posts to my email group of thieves, scoundrels and basketball buddies.

In response to my recent post about the Spurs - Wizards overtime thriller, Matrix asked me for my thoughts on the NBA’s Play-In Format. His inquiry led to the following exchange (edited slightly for clarity — hopefully).

MATRIX:

I hope the Spurs and Wiz both get in. I think they could give the Jazz / Suns and Nets trouble respectively as the 8 seed.

The key question for you is how do you feel about the play-in game scenario? I’ll tell you my thoughts after I hear yours.

LEE D:

The play-in game was a brilliant innovation for the Bubble Playoffs last year, as it justified having enough teams in the Bubble, and giving them all something to play for.

This year? I have mixed emotions, complicated by the fact that my team is now almost assured of making the fake playoffs (assuming we don’t blow any more 30-point leads). Absent the play-in games, the Spurs, Grizzlies and Warriors would be locked in an intense battle for the dreaded 8-spot to qualify to get blown out in round one. So it might make the last 10 games more intense for those teams to only have the 8 spot to shoot for, instead of 8, 9 and 10. Of course, even with then play-in format, it is still much better to be 7 or 8 than 9 and 10.

The play-in format also adds tension to the folks in the 5, 6 and 7 slots — all trying to stay out of 7. That 7 seed has both the risk of losing to a 9/10 team, but also loses a chance to rest while the play-in tourney is happening. That rest is especially important this year with the shortened off-season and the compressed schedule. So it adds tension to the 5,6 and 7 battle, above and beyond the normal concern about who the team will play in the first round — which is often which team to avoid.

Of course, the downside is that a team can outplay another team all season long, and risk losing the normal advantage of that in a one-game “one and done” — normally that 9 or 10 seed would already be in Cancun instead of having one more chance to win a few games and get into the 7 or 8 slot. Is it fair to a team like Dallas, who has a better regular season record over 72 or 82 games over a (for instance) Golden State, to be knocked out of the playoffs because a Steph Curry (for instance) gets hot for a game or two — or a Luka Doncic (for instance) tweaks his ankle in the first quarter of a play-in game?

MATRIX:

LOVE the detailed and multi-layered response. I’ll start at the top. I like the play-in concept. It keeps games like the Wizards - Lakers on Wednesday night meaningful and keeps fans and players engaged. Giving the 10-seed the chance the ability to make the playoffs is huge.

Now, do I think the exact mechanism / tournament is the fairest thing possible? Not really. There’s no perfect solution but I always thought college softball double elimination was a fair way to win and lose. I’m trying to think through why the 7 seed is even involved. I don’t like the fact that the 7 seed can lose two games and be out. It also just so happens that as of now there is a wide discrepancy between the 7 seed in both conferences (Heat and Blazers) and the 8-9-10 to further that point.

LEE D:

But isn’t the fact that the seven-seeds this year are a step above the scrum below them just an anomaly? Some years the cut-off between “strong teams” and “good but not strong teams” somewhere other than between seven and eight.

The question is how to balance the plusses and minuses: Is it “fair” for a 9 or 10 team that is around .500 for a full season to make the real playoffs by winning two games, allowing that mediocre team to get in over a team that was stronger over a full season? Is that unfairness worth more or less than keeping more teams — and their fans — invested in the season even though that team wouldn’t make it in the traditional eight team field? Remember that the play-in tourney also keeps the teams in the 5 and 6 slots fighting to the end to avoid dropping to 7th. How do you balance those?

MATRIX:

It’s honestly funny you ask that — I was literally thinking about it (in the shower) yesterday after a Saturday rec league game. Because of course the variability of and gap between 7 and 10 will differ year to year. The argument will work this year, but next year, you may have the 7, 8 and 9 seeds within a game or two and the 10 seed four games back. The head-scratching potential situation that could happen in that scenario if the 10 seed came out of the play-in tourney (and then proceeded to get swept in the first round) could challenge the integrity of the entire concept. [Lee D. drop in comment — Unless Steph Curry was on the 10 seed.]

The thought I had, appreciating it would get extremely technical, is to have a caveat for the play-in – i.e., if [3] games separate any teams 7-10 in the standings, there will be a play-in tourney under the same construct as previously outlined for those teams only. Given the impetus was from a shortened season when teams were “close” in the standings, this caveat would eliminate the scenario where a 7 seed is 5 games above an 8, or a 10 seed was 5 games below the 9. But if the 7-8-9 are close, have at it. And if the 8-9-10 are close, same thing. And if they are all neck and neck, let them battle it out.

I do find that sticking with the original plan usually works. But in today’s environment, people push for change more aggressively and faster (seems like a new rule change is implemented every year across all four leagues). Perhaps the league would be more amenable to slight tweaks along the way if they keep the construct.

LEE D:

First of all, it is totally unfair that you can play in a rec league in NYC but we can’t yet in LA. Of course, you have to live in New York City, and I get to live in LA, so I win. But let’s cut to the chase. If you were commissioner, would you keep the concept (with tweaks) or not? If the question is whether I would keep this format going forward, I think my answer is.... a soft yes. You?

MATRIX:

Yes as well. It’s ultimately good for the game