Play-in tournament for final playoff seeds still part of NBA return plan

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Time is running out to strike a deal if the NBA is going to return in time for games on Christmas Day this year, something NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is acutely aware of.

But whether the NBA starts before Christmas or a month later on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds will likely be part of that plan, reports Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN. The idea is to come up with something that incentivizes teams not to tank, plus is one more set of games that can be sold to television partners.

The play-in tournament proposal has coalesced around the structure ESPN first reported was gaining traction in early 2018: a four-team tournament among the Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10 seeds for the final two playoff spots in each conference.

The tournament would begin with No. 7 hosting No. 8, and the winner locking into the No. 7 spot. Meanwhile, No. 9 would face No. 10, with the winner advancing to play the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the No. 8 seed, sources have told ESPN.

That setup favors the teams that earned the higher seeds in the regular season, but gives the lower seeds a chance if they are playing well. That’s what worked well in the bubble, where there was drama around the play-in game between Memphis and Portland in the West.

The bubble play-in tournament also had a standings trigger — the No. 9 seed had to be within four games of the No. 8 seed. That’s why there was no play-in tournament in the East, Washington was 7.5 games back of Orlando. Would the No. 7 seed have a trigger to avoid a play-in tournament? Last season Dallas, the No. 7 seed in the West, was 7.5 games ahead of No. 8 seed Portland, and 8 games up on the No. 9 and 10 seeds (Memphis and Phoenix). Would it have been fair to make the Mavericks fight for a playoff spot they clearly earned in the regular season?

To date, the league’s 7-10 proposal has not been tweaked to include any standings trigger, sources told ESPN. The play-in tournament is meant to be a money-generating media property. Reducing the number of teams from four to three would reduce the number of games, and thus the overall revenue generated by the tournament, sources said.

That standings trigger could be part of the negotiations between the NBA and the players’ union, but time is running out on those talks. The NBA is concerned about the financial fallout if the season does not start on Dec. 22 — throwing around a potential $1 billion lost in this and future seasons combined — which gives the players leverage in discussions of the escrow taken out of their checks (to balance the league/player revenue split) and other topics.

Technically the sides have until Nov. 17, the day before the draft, to work out a deal for next season, including the salary cap and luxury tax lines. In practice, especially if there are going to be games on Christmas Day, a deal needs to come closer to the end of this week or the weekend. After that, it would have to be an MLK Day start.