NBA: Delete the play-in tournament or leave it alone


36 wins, 46 losses. This is the record at best average, at worst mediocre, posted by the New Orleans Pelicans at the end of the 2021-2022 regular season. However, they participate in the NBA playoffs. We have to go back to 2004 to find traces of a team – that of the Celtics – present at the table of leaders despite such a low success rate (43.9%). For their Sunday debut in Phoenix, Brandon Ingram and co. weren’t ridiculous, but they didn’t perform miracles either, losing 110-99.
Ninth in the Western Conference after 82 rounds on the menu, the Pels snatched the eighth spot in the play-in tournament. They owe their place in the postseason to two victories, against Spurs then Clippers hit by a twist of fate and ejected despite a much better record (42V-40D). They didn’t steal it from anyone. But they crystallize the debate that this famous « play-in » can arouse. A kind of play-off phase introduced two years ago, in a particular context, via a different format, and with a sporting argument (then) difficult to refute.


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The pretext of the Covid

July 2020. Suspended due to Covid-19, the NBA resumes in a bubble in Orlando. Hoping to reach 82 matches per franchise is illusory, in terms of both calendar and logistics. Thus, those who will fail at the gates of the « Top 8 » could feel aggrieved by this truncated exercise. Hence the establishment of a play-in tournament, likely to concern two teams per conference: to be able to challenge the eighth, the ninth must not exceed four victories behind.

The concept had already been considered in 2019. This time it came naturally. To compensate for a relative injustice, therefore. But no one is fooled. The NBA is not unhappy to have had to adapt in this way: its play-in has become a custom. From the following season, it takes a more important place, involving four thieves in the East as in the West: from seventh to tenth, and this without taking into account the difference in number of successes.

Trae Young, brilliant with the Hawks during the play-in this year

Credit: Getty Images

Already (more or less) significant moments

The pill passes moderately at LeBron James, for example. « Whoever came up with the idea for this shit needs to be fired“, thunders the King in May 2021, before shining during the play-in against the Warriors, decisive shot and original declaration at the key: “I saw three hoops … so I aimed for the middle one”. , he did not even have the opportunity to participate, eleventh in the West with his Lakers.Others were responsible for making this airlock between the regular and the playoffs spectacular.

The 2021 edition was also the prelude to the rise of Ja Morant. The 2022 edition saw Trae Young do wonders. In another style, Patrick Beverley and the Timberwolves celebrated their PO qualification like a championship title, making the (tease) happiness of the web. Willie Green’s inspiring speech, which put the Pelicans back on track, also made an impression. The so young play-in has already given birth to great performances and « emotional sequences », in two and a half opuses.

The intense joy of Patrick Beverley and Anthony Edwards, after the qualification of the Timberwolves for the playoffs, during the play-in tournament – 04/12/2022

Credit: Getty Images

However, such great scores and memorable scenes can take place independently of this funny tournament, which guarantees the much sought after « win or go home ». But what is rare is precious and the flavor of a « game 7 » is partly in its potential character. The NBA doesn’t need to artificially inflate its late-season regular-season interest in defiance of a consistency bonus that’s been consistent and in effect for decades.

False antidote to tanking

« We see a significant impact, mainly in the last month of the seasonrecently defended commissioner Adam Silver. Teams fight to enter the play-in, others jostle to avoid it.  » Avoid it from above? Or from below. We could thus retort that the Blazers took care to lose their last eleven meetings of the exercise, when they were at the gates of the zone 7-10, in order to move away methodically.

Playing on the probabilities of getting a particular pick in the draft, depending on the regular season ranking, is certainly the only way to limit tanking. The NBA did it effectively in 2019, a year since having the worst record isn’t so beneficial. The play-in, on the other hand, can only act in a marginal way on this tendency to the desired defeat, consequence of a mechanism of self-regulation inherent in the concept of closed league.

The finger in the gear

Still, the NBA seems determined not to let go of its new format – the outlines for 2023 of which have not been formalized – despite an incongruity. In a microcosm where individual stats are a sacrosanct factor when it comes to assessing a player’s greatness, play-in points belong neither to the regular season universe nor to that of the playoffs. This will possibly be corrected according to the sustainability of this phase of dams.

The next step could be its extension (apart from creating an in-season tournament, which is yet another matter). Fewer and fewer formations assured of playing the playoffs at the end of the regular, more and more teams which retain the hope of taking part in it, does that tell you? I hope that this excess would suffer from a lack of adhesion. There is also the hypothesis of a certain moderation, aimed at reducing the risk of leaving an invitation card lying around at someone who has not done much to own one. Via a maximum gap, 2020 style.

Brandon Williams and Keon Johnson, in a 31-point loss to the Jazz: winning did not seem to be the priority for the Blazers, at the end of the season

Credit: Getty Images

Let’s stay there

Bringing such a notion back into the equation would be a bad option for me. It would be like saying that provided you have won only three games less than an opponent, for example, you obtain the right to face him, as a formation of a similar caliber… whereas with four successes less than him, we only deserve to take the road of vacation. All around an arbitrarily set number of wins. Why three? Why not two, or four?

In my opinion, it is necessary to go to the end of the process. If the « play-in entertain(tourna)ment » gives satisfaction to the Great League, whether for direct pecuniary reasons, spectacle and dramaturgy offered, or quest for novelty assumed: OK. But it’s better not to do things by halves, not to try to take another step towards a flouted sporting logic. A bandage on a wooden leg does not make it a high-end prosthesis. My wish, no doubt pious, is the disappearance of the play-in. My wish, probably more reasonable, is to keep it as it is.

LeBron James

Credit: Getty Images


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