From the NBA league office’s perspective, the play-in tournament did what it was designed to do — kept fans from more markets engaged at the end of the season, created some excitement, and kept some teams from tanking (the play-in combined with the flattening of the lottery odds has slowed tanking around the league, and talk of it). That’s why it will be back next season.
That doesn’t mean everyone is a fan, particularly those that suddenly have to play in it, like LeBron James. Not so coincidentally, Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss — who saw her team fall to the play-in while LeBron was out with an ankle injury last season — is not a fan, either. Here is what she said in a Q&A with Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic.
I obviously see the excitement of it. If we would have lost two games, we wouldn’t have been in the playoffs at all. And that’s, that’s a tough pill to swallow. When you’ve been in the top eight for the entire season. You never dropped out of the playoff position. But yet, you know, you can lose two games, and that’s what happened to Golden State, they were at the eighth spot, and then they ended up losing to us and then to Memphis and they didn’t make it in the playoffs. I could see where it’s kind of fun for one game, but I don’t want to diminish what happens in the regular season.
They like to say that it combats tanking and I think tanking would be best served by losing draft picks, something that hurts the basketball department as opposed to a financial punishment, right? Because the general manager’s job is based on wins and losses. The general manager’s job isn’t based on how many season tickets you sell, or how many sponsors.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said he is open to tweaking the play-in tournament to make it fairer.
Buss makes a valid argument, one we can bet players/coaches/GMs the No. 7 and 8 seeded teams each year will echo. The “doesn’t the regular season matter” argument has some weight. Buss also gets to the real issue: Money. Teams pay players for the regular season, the league pays them out of a pool for the playoffs, so all the revenue that comes in from playoff home games goes straight to a franchise’s bottom line. For a team like the Lakers, even a couple of home playoff games means millions in extra revenue (in a year where buildings can be filled again).
However, the play-in doesn’t change the championship landscape — the No. 7 or 8 seeds almost never advance out of the first round, let alone all the way to the Finals (the 1999 Knicks were the only No 8 seed to make an NBA Finals). The only NBA champion outside the top four seeds in their conference was the 1995 Houston Rockets (No. 6). Miami made the Finals a No. 5 seed in the bubble, but that was an unprecedented circumstance. The play-in provides television drama and keeps fans engaged, but it doesn’t really change the playoff dynamics.
There are other challenges here. For example, the idea of punishing tanking teams by losing draft picks is not easy to enforce — “we’re not tanking, we’re just not a good team” — and the punishment of taking away picks from the teams that need them most is counterintuitive. So the league set up a way to incentivize better play, which is smarter than punishing perceived tanking.
So long as LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook stay largely healthy, the Lakers shouldn’t have to worry about the play-in games this coming season. Instead, it will be a new owner or team that will slot seventh and complain about the play-in tournament being unfair.