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The NBA Play-In Tournament: Reigniting Interest in the Regular Season

by Arvind Pennathur about a year ago in basketball
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The NBA season is heading into its final stages...but this time, there's a twist

When it was announced that the NBA would be implementing the play-in tournament that was used last year to determine the standings heading into the playoffs, I figured that it wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows – they used it in the bubble and it worked out pretty well, so I saw no reason for people to criticize its use. However, as the tournament drew nearer, the criticism surrounding it grew in intensity, with some players and coaches speaking out against it and sparking discussions all around the NBA community as to whether it was a good idea. My two cents? I feel that the play-in tournament is a great idea that will change the way that people look at the NBA.

To briefly recap what exactly this is, the play-in tournament is the beginning of this season's NBA playoffs, and it features the teams ranked from 7-10 in each conference. Ordinarily, after the conclusion of the regular season, the first eight teams from both the eastern and western conferences qualify, but this time, only the first six teams in each conference are assured of a playoff spot, while the teams that are ranked 7-10 have to play in their own set of games to determine who gets to occupy the 7th and 8th spots in their respective conferences. This is the format the league is following this year:

Now, there are a number of criticisms that the play in tournament has faced – one of them is how all it takes is one or two bad games for a team to be completely disqualified from entering the playoffs. Dallas Maverick’s all star shooting guard Luka Doncic said as much in an interview following one of his team’s games:

I don't understand the idea of a play-in; You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you're out of the playoffs. So I don't see the point of that.

To preface this, I am not completely discrediting what Luka had to say here, as he makes some valid points. However, there are two things I want to address here. Firstly, the aspect of playing so many games before the playoffs begin. This has been a criticism of the NBA season for a while now - many players and fans feel that having 82 games in one season is just way too much, and when you factor in the pre-season, practice time before games, and the playoffs, it's easy to see where they're coming from. Fatigue is a real factor when it comes to any sport, and this particular NBA season is a perfect example: with the 2020 season only ending last October and this one starting merely 2 months after, there wasn't a lot of time for players to get themselves ready for the season. It surely can’t be a coincidence that there were so many injuries throughout this season when the off-season was only 2 months, right? However, as irritating as this may be, the NBA is a business at the end of the day, and more games = more money, and it is unlikely that this will change anytime soon.

Secondly, the fact that just two bad games could mean that you’re out of the playoffs is harsh – no two ways about it. After sweating it out for so many games throughout the season, it seems unfair to have the grand prize taken away after a bad day on the field. But that is life, isn’t it? You’ve got your good days, and you’ve got your bad ones, and in order to stay on top, you’ve got to try your hardest to ensure you play at a certain level – surely we as fans can expect consistency and solid performances from athletes who have been chosen to play the game at the highest level? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Speaking of fans, one of the biggest positives of the play-in tournament is what it's done for the perception of the regular season in the eyes of both casual and hardcore fans of the game. Ordinarily, at this point in the season, games would be completed for the sake of finishing the schedule, but now, the same games can suddenly change the entire complexion of the table and can affect every single team in a conference. For example, yesterday the Memphis Grizzlies won against the Sacramento Kings and ascended to the 8th spot in the Western Conference, only to be replaced by the Golden State Warriors in a matter of hours. Today, the Los Angeles Lakers won a game against the Indiana Pacers, increasing their chances to avoid the play-in tournament and putting the Portland Trailblazers in the hot seat. Each game impacts the table at large and could have a huge impact on deciding who makes it to the final eight. All of this can make for a supremely entertaining viewing experience, whether you're a casual fan or not.

Another advantage of implementing such a mechanism is that it gives teams a chance to make comebacks late into the season. The Washington Wizards qualified for the play-in tournament yesterday, despite losing 8 out of their first 11 games and having six games in a row postponed due to outbreaks of COVID-19 among various players. An incredible push by Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal propelled their record to 29-34 by the end of April, and now they’re sitting at the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference.

The play-in tournament reminds me of how the Indian Premier League (IPL), India’s marquee cricket tournament, decides its finalists. Throughout the tournament, the teams all battle for a spot in the top four of the table, as it is only those teams that move forward into the playoffs. However, the qualification for the finals isn’t a straightforward scenario from this point on. The top two teams play a match, and the winner of that match goes directly to the finals. This is commonly called ‘Qualifier 1’. Meanwhile, the third and fourth placed teams play an elimination fixture (aptly named ‘Eliminator’), and the winner of that match faces the loser of Qualifier 1 (this is called ‘Qualifier 2’), and obviously, the winner of this match faces the winner of Qualifier 1 in the IPL Final. Getting into the top four isn't the only priority; where you are placed within those four is also important. Obviously, finishing in 1st or 2nd would give you two chances at making the final - a luxury most teams would want to have.

Similar to how the play-in tournament works, a couple of bad games could mean the end of your title campaign, and in a game like cricket, where there are many more extraneous factors than in basketball, it means the results can be heavily influenced by luck. However, it’s the tenacity of these great players and the ability to beat the odds and survive that makes watching sports so exciting, isn’t it?

At the end of the day, I believe that the play-in tournament can reignite fans' passion for the game of basketball in the long term. By giving players more to play for at the end of a regular season, fans will be sure to be glued to their seats to see who makes it to the final rounds and how their favorite team will be affected. Perhaps in this particular season, it comes across as more of a burden due to the pandemic and the short off-season, but in the future, I'm sure it will become a staple that fans of the NBA will come to appreciate.


About the author

Arvind Pennathur

I'm a graduate law student with a love for the quieter things in life. I write on a variety of topics, along with the occasional short story or poem.

My perfect evening? Give me a rainy day, a cup of coffee, and a place to sit and write.

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