For the last three seasons, the NBA has used a play-in tournament to determine its final few playoff teams. In 2020, one play-in game was played: a Portland Trail Blazers win over the Memphis Grizzlies, giving the Trail Blazers the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. In 2021 and 2022, four teams in each conference entered the play-in.
So far, all four No. 7 seeds won their opening game and advanced into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed just as normal. Similarly, No. 9 seeds are 4-0 in their opening games, and they have advanced to the playoffs in three of four opportunities. In 2022, the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans both accomplished this feat.
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In 2020, the NBA had a unique situation from the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams entered the bubble with different numbers of games played. In the bubble, teams would not necessarily be able to make up missed games as several teams were not invited to the bubble. Instead, the NBA opted for each team to play eight games. The play-in came in with teams chasing for the No. 8 seed. If a team finished within four games of the No. 8 seed, they were able to play the No. 8 seed for the right to make the playoffs. The No. 9 seed had to win twice in two games. The No. 8 seed needed just one win.
This was a happy middle ground between teams. Heading into the season, every team signed up for 82 games. Excluding lockout seasons, every NBA team plays 82 games and can plan accordingly. Teams can take rest days, sit their star players, or experiment with their lineups throughout the season. 2020 robbed them of some of this opportunity, so the play-in was a fair addition to the season.
2021 was one of the stranger seasons in NBA history. Instead of the usual 82 games, every team played 72. This season also featured the shortest gap between the end of one season and the beginning of the next season in the history of the big four North American sports. As a tradeoff, the NBA announced that the play-in tournament would be expanded. Six teams in each conference would be safe. The seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth teams in each conference would enter the play-in. Higher seeds would have an easier time making it to the playoffs, but the Nos. 9 and 10 would have an opportunity.
Similar to 2020, this was a fair trade between the NBA and its teams. The 72-game season and short offseason put NBA teams in more of a sprint than in years past. Two-thirds of NBA teams would have the opportunity to make the playoffs, and the expanded playoff format would accommodate teams that could have made runs had they had the opportunity to play 82 games. For example, the No. 10 Charlotte Hornets finished one game back of the No. 8 seed through 72 games. In a normal season, they might have caught the Washington Wizards. The NBA gave them this shot in the play-in (where the Hornets lost to the Indiana Pacers by 27).
2022 Comes with Issues
In 2022, every team played a full slate of 82 games. The NBA opted to keep the play-in, subjecting both conference’s Nos. 7 and 8 seeds to peril that they had never faced in any 82-game season in NBA history. Instead of having a best-of-seven series against a top-two seed in the first round, they were given two chances to win one game to clinch a playoff spot.
This ordeal undermines the importance of the regular season spectacularly. For example, the No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves were 12 games ahead of the No. 10 San Antonio Spurs in the regular season. Had the play-in broken a particular way, the Timberwolves would have had a win-or-go-home game against a team with a record just as close to a top-two lottery spot as they were to the Timberwolves.
Teams around the NBA have constructed their rosters to win enough games to make the playoffs. In 2022, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers did enough to be the eighth seeds in their respective conferences. However, both were forced into the play-in. For the Cavaliers, it took a Trae Young masterclass to make their 44-win season irrelevant. For the Clippers, it took Paul George entering COVID protocols to make their 42-win season irrelevant.
The Cavaliers and Clippers likely would have lost their first-round series, but unlike the 16 teams now competing in the playoffs, they only had to lose twice. Playoff teams can lose three times in a series without being eliminated – even the No. 9 seeds that beat the Cavaliers and Clippers. It seems contradictory to end an 82-game season with a pair of do-or-die games with the winners progressing into a much more lenient playoff system.
The Better Team Wins Anyways
Every other series in the NBA playoffs is a best-of-seven. There is no other situation where a team can win one game and progress to the next round. The play-in could fix this by instituting a best-of-three series (similar to MLB’s expanded playoffs). One could point to Game 7 situations, but those only result after the teams split the first six games of a series.
The Games are Entertaining
This notion is true, but it is misguided. In 2022, five of six play-in games were decided by 10 or fewer points. In 2021, the three Western Conference play-in games were decided by a total of 12 points, even featuring an overtime game. However, if the barrier to entry is “games should be entertaining,” then that would open the door for even more playoff expansion. Letting 20 of 30 teams into the play-in (at the very least) already dilutes the playoff field. A duel between 20-win teams might be entertaining, but in the grand scheme of the NBA playoffs, it would be pointless.
The NBA Play-In games are here to stay. There are six must-watch events on the NBA calendar even if the games themselves stink (looking at the Hornets and their back-to-back blowout losses). The NBA should look to expand these into best-of-three series which would not only result in more televised games but would also give the top-six seeds in both conferences even more rest. Under this format, teams would not be subject to the whims of one game to erase their season, and the NBA could have up to 12 more games to put on ESPN, TNT, ABC, and other stations.
Follow Ryan Potts on Twitter @MrSplashMan19