Report: NBA considering play-in tournament for playoffs

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Adam Silver and LeBron James are publicly arguing about 1-16 playoff seeding.

But that’s not the only change to the NBA’s postseason potentially afoot.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

sources say there is also some behind-the-scenes momentum for the idea of a play-in tournament determining the last two seeds in each conference — to the point that two specific proposals are circulating at the highest levels within teams and the league office.

The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot.

It is not coming next season, and it would be a shock if the NBA adopted it in time for 2020 or even 2021. It may never happen. Any such change would need approval from the competition committee, and then from a supermajority of 23 NBA teams. That process has not even started.

The NBA playoffs, with best-of-seven series, makes it more likely the better team advances. The NCAA tournament, with one game per team per round, generates excitement with increased variance and upsets.

Each format presents its own pros and cons, and I think too many NBA people seek the unpredictability of college basketball without considering the tradeoffs.

But I actually like this, because it makes the long regular season matter more. Each play-in seed faces a progressively easier route to the real playoffs:

  • No. 7 seed: Win one of up to two home games
  • No. 8 seed: Win one road or one home game
  • No. 9 seed: Win one home and one road game
  • No. 10: Win two road games

With more doors open to post-regular-season basketball, that’d theoretically curb tanking. Most tanking occurs lower in the standings, and the NBA hopes its lottery reform will address that. But this could incentivize teams otherwise be out of the playoff race to keep competing.

There are still plenty of questions to answer: How is revenue from the play-in tournament distributed? Could it work in conjunction with 1-16 seeding? How are are play-in-tournament teams treated in the lottery?

But this at least seems plausible.