Why the NBA Play-In Tournament System Actually Works

In the extremely brief NBA off-season this past November, the NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved a trial run for a new addition to the league’s playoff format, known as the “Play-In Tournament“. With this new format, there will be three additional games at the end of the season to decide the seventh and eighth seeds for the playoffs in each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds will play against each other, with the winner securing the seventh seed. The ninth and tenth seeds will also face off, with the loser being eliminated. The winner of the “Nine vs. Ten game” will then face the loser of the “Seven vs. Eight game”. The winner of that final matchup will then secure the 8th seed, and the 1st round of the playoffs will finally begin.

Now is this system confusing? At first, absolutely. The intent behind it’s implementation was very clear: to incentivize teams in the six-to-eight region of the standings to continue competing at the end of the season, while also giving the fringe eighth-seed teams a fighting chance to still make the playoffs. And it certainly doesn’t come without objections.

Draymond Green has voiced that the play in games don’t motivate him. Luka Doncic said that he doesn’t see the point in them. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban claims that the system was an “enormous mistake”; despite voting for its implementation back in November, and coincidentally as his team now sits in sixth place. Most notably, Lebron James has sounded off against these Play-In games, saying “Whoever came up with that (expletive) needs to be fired.”

But I argue that who ever came up with this system should instead be given a raise, because this is quite possibly the best change that’s ever happened to the NBA playoffs.

The Washington Wizards are a prime example as to why this play-in tournament works. Washington started this NBA season with some of the worst roster misfortunes in the league. On top of the team trading their franchise point guard John Wall to Houston in exchange for Russell Westbrook just before the season started, the Wizards were one of the worst hit teams with COVID protocols holding players out.

In January, six Wizards players tested positive for COVID-19, including their three-point specialist Davis Bertans, starting power forward Rui Hachimura, and their coveted rookie Deni Avdija. With these players out, as well as their starting center Thomas Bryant tearing his ACL, and Westbrook dealing with torn quadricep injuries, the Wizards didn’t have the minimum of 8 available players; triggering the postponement of their next six games. Then when Washington returned to action after their 13-day lull, their 3-8 record slipped to 6-17 by the middle of February.

Since that skid, however, the team has managed to turn it around entirely. Players came back from injury, Russell Westbrook has yet again become a triple-double machine, and the team has climbed from the bottom of the standings to the 10th seed in the East; which is the cut-off point for the new play-in Tournament.

Now, the Hornets, Pacers, and Wizards are among those battling for this 8th seed in the east, with only one game separating the three team records. But now, we don’t have to witness two of these teams seasons come to an end due to a single game separation; we get to witness three win-or-go-home games to decide their playoff fate.

Circumstances like these are why the play-in tournament was introduced. It’s not like the Wizards are getting a ‘cake-walk’ to the playoffs despite early struggles; they’re practically doubling up on games to close this season out to make up for those six early postponements. Plus, if they do make this play-in tournament, they still have to earn their way into the playoffs against teams that have faced less adversity.

Of course teams competing in the 6th-8th seed of the standings like the Mavericks and Lakers will be mad at this playoff format since it directly affects them. They certainly have ‘a leg to stand on’ in arguing that this raises the stakes of every game, requiring starters to play more minutes in an already condensed season schedule. But we as NBA fans definitely love to see Stephen Curry put the Warriors on his back as they climb their way into the playoffs, and teams like the Pelicans fighting their way to that 10th seed.