The NBA play-in tournament is going to continue for at least the 2021-22 season, having been agreed upon by the league and the Players Association, per ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski.
In the report Woj dropped about the news, he featured a quote from NBA commissioner Adam Silver from before Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, as Silver expressed enthusiasm for the play-in format.
“I personally have a big appetite — and it may be bigger than some of our teams and even some of the players,” Silver said. “There was some resistance to the play-in tournament. I hope it’s a new element of our game. We hope to go forward with that.”
Silver has been adamant about expanding and growing the game as much as possible. The concept of in-season tournaments has been floated, although that doesn’t seem like an imminent change, barring something unforeseen.
Recap of 2021 NBA play-in tournament
If you look at the NBA standings from this past season, even though the schedule was shortened from 82 to 72 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was still plenty of drama in the regular season.
In the Western Conference, Stephen Curry willed the Golden State Warriors to eighth place in the standings and put on a phenomenal display as the league scoring champion. Unfortunately, they came out flat for the play-in tournament, and it cost them a chance to square off with the top-seeded Utah Jazz.
The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, hampered with injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James throughout the season, had to participate as well. Everyone was holding their breath that LeBron and AD wouldn’t get hurt in these games, which were somewhat meaningless in the big-picture sense for the Purple and Gold.
Golden State had earned the eighth seed in 72 prior contests, just edging out the Memphis Grizzlies. Instead, Memphis took on the Jazz and bowed out in five games.
Obviously, the superstar injuries played a part in the Lakers’ slide down the standings. They still did enough to not have to sweat out an additional game against the Warriors with their two elite players banged up. It’s a wonder Los Angeles forced Phoenix to six games in the first round.
As for the Eastern Conference, the seventh- and eighth-seeded Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards rightly won the play-in tournament. Thank goodness, because the Indiana Pacers were essentially quitting on their now-fired coach Nate Bjorkgren, and the Charlotte Hornets had lost five straight to fall to 10th in the East and were without an injured Gordon Hayward.
Pros and cons of NBA play-in tournament
Bottom line: Everyone would’ve loved to see Curry and the Dubs try to top Utah, and it’d have been a nightmare if a Hayward-less Charlotte got in, or a disinterested Pacers squad.
The pluses of a play-in tournament are that it lowers the incentive for teams to tank for better draft lottery odds, there’s more opportunity for revenue, teams that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to get in are granted a do-or-die, last-gasp chance at the playoffs, and the fan experience is ultimately enhanced.
As Silver alluded to, though, the players haven’t been universally keen on the idea. It didn’t help that this was introduced at an extraordinary time, with a short turnaround between the past two regular seasons and the sense that the NBA was trying to make up some revenue while subjecting players to further injury risk.
The NBA play-in tournament actually has the potential to prevent the best eight teams from each conference from matching up in the postseason. Whatever monetary upside there is to gain might not be worth the potential tank in TV ratings if, say, Memphis gets in over Golden State.
Since it’s still in the trial-run phase, maybe the NBA play-in tournament can work out its quirks and will prove to be a smash hit in 2021-22. Until the model is an undeniable success, though, there will rightly be plenty of persisting detractors.