The N.B.A.’s Play-In Tournament Isn’t the Problem

The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James said on Sunday night that the league forces behind a playoff play-in tournament “should be fired.” Weeks before James voiced his displeasure, Mark Cuban, who voted for the play-in as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, called the concept an “enormous mistake.”

I say they’re both wrong, and see the race to set up the N.B.A.’s play-in round from May 18 to 21 as the most invigorating aspect of a dour, draining, pandemic-skewed season.

The idea here, though, is not to dwell on James or Cuban, two of the league’s most outspoken figures. They were offering emotional reactions to their teams’ increasingly unpleasant circumstances in the standings. Both surely know it was self-serving it came across to attack the play-in format only after their teams faced an acute risk of having to participate in it.

Zoom in on what’s happening among the top 11 teams in each conference, and you will see that the format change is doing its job — and promisingly so. More teams are playing more games that mean something than we’re accustomed to with just under two weeks left in the regular season. A system that gives the No. 9 or 10 seed a last-ditch pathway into the playoffs — but only if one of those teams can win two play-in games in a row — has spawned new levels of jockeying for seeding position. That’s good for the game at large, even if it has, in Year 1, complicated matters for the injury-ravaged defending champions in Los Angeles.

Adam Silver, in his seven-plus years as commissioner, has emphasized finding ways to make the regular season matter more. He has also sought to discourage teams from shifting into the familiar late-season mode of resting veterans and focusing on youth development to foster losing and improve draft position, better known as tanking. The combination of the play-in and changes to the lottery odds starting in the 2018-19 season is making a difference on both fronts. Before the 2019 draft, the team with the lowest winning percentage had the highest odds to get the No. 1 pick. The three worst teams now share an equal shot at the top spot.

Credit…Nelson Chenault/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Entering Tuesday’s play, 24 of the league’s 30 teams were still in playoff contention because of the added play-in slots, although the chances seemed unrealistic for Chicago in the East and Sacramento in the West. In both conferences, in addition to the usual grappling for the No. 1 seed, there are fevered races to secure a top-six seed and avoid the play-in round, as well as crowded races to clinch a spot in the 7-to-10 range to extend the season.

The play-in scenario calls for the No. 7 seed in each conference to play one game against No. 8 at home, with No. 9 playing No. 10 at home. The winner of 7 vs. 8 claims the No. 7 seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of 9 vs. 10 at home for the No. 8 seed, with the loser of 9 vs. 10 eliminated. The seventh- and eighth-seeded teams in each conference thus have to win just once to clinch a playoff berth. No. 9 or No. 10 must win two games in a row to advance.

The Mavericks’ Luka Doncic lamented last month that he didn’t “see the point” of playing an entire season if “maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs.” That was what prompted Cuban’s “enormous mistake” comment, but on Monday he said that he had “no problem” with the play-in and that he welcomed the competitive boost it could lend to a standard 82-game season. Cuban’s dismay, he said both last month and Monday, is contained to this season because of the stress it heaps on already stressed teams. He contended that additional games with seeding implications compound the burden on teams chafing from cramming 72 regular-season games into five months while coping with daily coronavirus testing and extensive league health and safety demands.

But the benefits, at least for fans, have been plentiful. There is a newfound incentive for teams to finish no lower than sixth, both to avoid the play-in and to gain several days of additional rest before the first round of the playoffs. The seeding scramble also features highly watchable players vying for play-in berths: Washington’s duo of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, New Orleans’s Zion Williamson, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball and, most of all, Golden State’s scorching hot Stephen Curry. The prospect of stars like Curry, Portland’s Damian Lillard and maybe even Williamson headlining bonus high-stakes broadcasts presumably excites network executives as much as the possibility of an early Lakers exit scares them.

In Washington’s case, Beal and Westbrook have been at the forefront of a 13-3 surge that has enabled the Wizards to overcome a 17-32 start and compete for something after a coronavirus outbreak in January essentially shut down the franchise for two weeks. As a counter to Cuban’s complaint, San Antonio’s bid to stay alive for a playoff berth despite a second-half scheduling crunch has been boosted by the play-in path. The Spurs must play 40 games in 67 days in the season’s second half, but they have clung to 10th in the West, ahead of Williamson’s Pelicans.

Tanking has not been eradicated by the play-in chases, but there is certainly less of it. The numbing regular-season discourse about individual awards (and little else) has been mercifully balanced by a heightened focus on the playoff ladders and how meaningful, just to give one example, Boston’s regular-season finale against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on May 16 could be. Even fears that adding play-in berths would lead more teams to stand pat and thus chill the trade market proved mostly unfounded; deadline day on March 25 delivered a record number of trades (16).

The most compelling argument against the play-in tournament is the one Cuban raised — that this wasn’t the season for such experimentation. I suppose, for some, it’s a step too far after the tight turnaround from last season, which carried into October, and all the virus-related demands that cut into players’ rest, rehabilitation and practice time.

Yet the bulk of the additional stress is a byproduct of the league’s decision, in conjunction with the players’ union, to start this season on Dec. 22 and play 72 games in a compressed period. The rising concern among teams’ medical staffs about increased injury risk because of game density and scheduling logjams caused by game postponements would probably have manifested with or without the play-in wrinkle.

As for suggestions that the East and West No. 7 seeds deserve more protection than the play-in system affords, based on their season-long body of work, let’s push back. The lowest seed to win a championship since the league adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1983-84 was sixth-seeded Houston in 1994-95 — when the Rockets were defending champions and traded for Clyde Drexler at midseason. The playoffs do not revolve around No. 7 seeds. If they can’t win one play-in game at home, when given two chances, how much playoff damage were they going to do, anyway?

What no one envisioned was three of the four teams that reached last season’s conference finals tumbling into play-in territory, which is why the issue has caused so much angst. Miami (No. 6) and Boston (No. 7) in the East, among the teams that have been hit hardest by Covid-19 disruptions, might have to go the play-in route just to get back to the playoffs. The Lakers began the season as overwhelming championship favorites and duly started 21-6, but their subsequent struggles have played out in the most daunting way. James and Anthony Davis, as we warned, have not been able to make seamless returns from their long-term injuries.

The Lakers will not look capable of a lengthy playoff run, even if they can avoid the indignity of a play-in game or two, until the health of their two stars improves. For all the attention on James’s harsh critique of the play-in games, he said something else on Sunday to suggest he had a firm grasp of the Lakers’ larger seeding plight.

“If I’m not 100 percent, or close to 100 percent, it don’t matter where we land,” James said.

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: To answer the question posed by last week’s newsletter, Russell Westbrook is not appreciated because he does not win. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson could have averaged 15 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists per game every season if that was their goal. Westbrook is a pretty amazing player, and a deserved All-Star, but teams looking to win it all don’t seem to be interested in him. — Noel MacDonald (Petaluma, Calif.)

Stein: This is a popular sentiment about Westbrook, and there are some minds he will probably never change until he is part of a championship team, no matter what he achieves statistically.

That Westbrook has been traded twice since winning the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2016-17 only amplifies the argument. Yet when Westbrook has gotten triple-doubles, his teams have won handily, so I would dispute the blanket statement that Westbrook “does not win.”

Westbrook has 178 career triple-doubles in the regular season and a 134-44 record in those games, good for a winning percentage of .753. That equates to a 62-20 record in a typical season.

Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington, then, have clearly benefited from his triple-doubles. Detractors are bound to say Westbrook could be chasing them in every game and hurting his team when he doesn’t achieve them, but I don’t think Westbrook is motivated by triple-doubles above all else. Teammates probably wouldn’t respect him the way they do if that were happening.

All of these layers, and everything we covered last week, are why I’m so curious to see the reaction when Westbrook breaks Oscar Robertson’s career record for triple-doubles (181). Maybe this will be the moment that the league at large stops to appreciate someone who plays as ridiculously hard as Westbrook does, season after season after season, even if his résumé lacks a championship. Or maybe not.

Q: Stephen Curry is great, but he’s the third-best Warrior ever. He’s not better than Rick Barry, and he’s not better than Wilt Chamberlain. Unless Curry adds another dimension to his game, he will not crack the top 10 or 15 all time. — @michaelbookit from Twitter

Stein: This is another bold opinion (or you were just trying to get a Twitter rise out of me). Whether or not I can persuade you to reconsider your stance, I strongly disagree.

Chamberlain’s greatest successes as a player were as a 76er and as a Laker. Although the statistics he posted as a Warrior remain difficult to fathom, like the 50.4 points per game he averaged as a Philadelphia Warrior in 1961-62, his time in the Bay Area lasted less than three seasons. The Warriors even missed the playoffs in Wilt’s first San Francisco season.

Barry has long been one of the game’s underappreciated stars, and his all-around excellence in leading Golden State to an unforeseen championship in 1975 cemented him as one of the game’s greats, but Curry’s résumé has it all. Three championships, five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals, back-to-back M.V.P. awards, longevity with one franchise, massive popularity with fans and seemingly limitless shooting range that changed the game — Curry really has no peer here.

Q: I have assumed that teams that qualified for the playoff play-in round but did not advance further would not be considered teams that reached the playoffs this season. Then on Friday, according to the league’s official standings, Philadelphia was shown to have clinched a playoff berth when the 76ers had 10 games left on their schedule — but only an 8½-game lead over No. 7 Miami. Didn’t that mean that the Sixers conceivably could have still slipped to seventh?— Jeff Pucillo (Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.)

Stein: You are correct that teams that get to the play-in round will not be considered playoff teams unless they win the last playoff spot in each conference.

The standings, though, did not convey the full picture of Philadelphia’s situation. The Sixers clinched a playoff berth as of Friday because No. 6 Boston and No. 7 Miami still had two games against each other — and the results of those forthcoming games, no matter what they are, will ensure that either the Celtics or the Heat can’t catch the Sixers.

It’s not your imagination: Major blowouts have been increasingly common this season. A record six games in April were decided by margins of at least 40 points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and Indiana promptly drubbed Oklahoma City by 57 points, 152-95, on Saturday, the first day of May.

When Utah scored 154 points in a 49-point rout of Sacramento last week, it was the eighth time over the past two seasons that an N.B.A. team had scored as many as 150 points in a non-overtime game. Over the prior 20 seasons, from 1999-2000 to 2018-19, it happened only four times, according to Elias.

Philadelphia is 32-6 this season when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both in uniform. The 76ers’ .842 winning percentage in those games shows the team’s tremendous potential when the two stars are healthy, but their 38 games together mean Embiid and Simmons have been available as a duo for only 58 percent of Philadelphia’s schedule.

Of Utah’s 18 losses this season, eight were inflicted by three teams: Phoenix, Washington and lowly Minnesota. The Suns and Timberwolves went 3-0 against the Jazz, who also absorbed a 2-0 season sweep from the Wizards. In another quirk, Sacramento is 10-1 against Denver (3-0), Dallas (3-0), Boston (2-0) and the Los Angeles Lakers (2-1). The Kings are 17-36 against the rest of the league and will most likely soon miss the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry sank 96 3-pointers in April to establish a league record for a single month. It was not until the ninth season of existence for the 3-point line in the N.B.A. that a player reached that total over 82 regular-season games; Boston’s Danny Ainge (148), Denver’s Michael Adams (139), Seattle’s Dale Ellis (107) and Ainge’s Celtics teammate Larry Bird (98) were the first to get there, in 1987-88.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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