Madness or maddening? NBA’s play-in game stirs controversy

A smidgen of irony accompanied Dallas star Luka Doncic’s wild game-winning buzzer-beater 3-pointer against Memphis on Wednesday.

It came following Mark Cuban’s criticism of the NBA’s play-in game format in which the Nos. 7-10 seeds compete for the final two playoff spots after the conclusion of the regular season. Cuban bemoaned the inability to rest key players during a demanding 72-game pandemic-induced schedule as the Mavericks fight not only for a playoff spot but to stay out of the play-in game scenario.

The format is designed for several purposes: to give more teams a chance to make the playoffs, to create excitement, to curtail tanking and to make more games meaningful.

Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies coach
For us, it’s awesome. For the league, it creates a lot of excitement and competition. I know they’re studying that and they’ll figure out how that makes sense moving forward.

But had the Mavericks been content where they were in the standings with no need to win Wednesday’s game, maybe Doncic would not have played and we would’ve been robbed of another amazing Doncic game-winner. The play-in system met an intended purpose: the game had meaning.

Doncic also complained about the play-in game, and Cuban defended his star, saying, “The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. In hindsight, this approach was an enormous mistake.”

Cuban’s change of heart

Some in the NBA saw the irony. 

“I thought it was funny that Mark Cuban, who I absolutely love, pushed it,” New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Not only did he vote for it, but he pushed it. And now that they’re sitting where they are, they don’t like it.”

Cuban’s point shouldn’t be dismissed entirely, and while there are some high-profile injuries, NBA data revealed fewer games missed to injury this season compared to last season and the number of injuries to starters this season is lower than last season.

The play-in format, which was introduced last season in the bubble, works like this for this season:

The seventh and eighth seeds in each conference play each other, and the ninth and 10th seeds play each other. The winner of 7-8 is the seventh seed. The winner of 9-10 plays the loser of 7-8 for the eighth seed.

The seventh or eighth seed has to lose twice to miss the playoffs and the ninth or 10th seed must win twice. It’s the NBA’s version of March Madness. Unlike in most previous seasons, just the top six – instead of the top eight – are guaranteed a playoff spot.

Doncic’s main complaint: “You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point of that.”

The league sees the point, and it’s why the play-in is likely to stay beyond this season.

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Increasing the regular-season stakes

There is gamesmanship involved, too. Teams long have jockeyed for playoff position and potentially a more a favorable matchup. Right now with Dallas in the seventh spot, it would play Phoenix in the first round – a Suns team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. But if the Mavs are the eighth seed, they would play Utah in the first round, or if they were the sixth seed, they would play the Los Angeles Clippers.

The play-in format juggles the scenarios and bumps up the stakes. The Mavs might prefer the seventh seed, but they also don’t want to risk losing twice in the play-in games and miss the playoffs.

The league likes the increased competition even if some coaches, such as Boston’s Brad Stevens, are ambivalent.

“It is what it is,” Stevens said. “It’s what they decided to do. I understand the entertainment value of it. So we’ll land where we land in regard to us.”

The play-in scenario generates intrigues in the middle and end of the playoff standings.

Take the East. Atlanta, Boston and New York are fourth, fifth and sixth, but Miami, Charlotte and Indiana in seventh, eighth and ninth place are at least within two games of the Knicks. And Toronto and Washington are just a game behind 10th-place Chicago, and Cleveland is 2½ games behind the Bulls. That’s 13 of 15 teams in the East with a chance at the playoffs.

It’s not as bunched up in the West. But there are still compelling situations. Dallas is seventh, a game behind Portland. That one spot in the standings is the difference between a guaranteed playoff spot and a play-in game.

Or take the eight, nine and 10 seeds – Memphis, Golden State and San Antonio. The eight seed just has to win one play-in game and the ninth and 10th seeds has to win twice. It’s easy to see why those teams would rather end up in seventh or eighth place.

“For us, it’s awesome,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “For the league, it creates a lot of excitement and competition. I know they’re studying that and they’ll figure out how that makes sense moving forward. But hopefully we give ourselves a great chance in the last 20 games to keep getting better and make a push for the playoffs.”

In the first playoff play-in game in NBA's history last August, the eighth-seeded Trail Blazers beat the No. 9 Grizzlies in a thriller to advance into the playoffs.

In the first playoff play-in game in NBA’s history last August, the eighth-seeded Trail Blazers beat the No. 9 Grizzlies in a thriller to advance into the playoffs.
Kevin C. Cox, USA TODAY Sports

Motivation factors for Warriors

Golden State’s Draymond Green dismissed the idea, mainly because he is used to being the top seed and going to the Finals.

“Fighting for a play-in spot does not motivate me,” he said. “Fighting for a playoff spot does not motivate me at all. I’m not thinking, ‘We’re right there on the fringe, we need to win these games for a play-in spot.’ No. I want to win every game I play in because I hate losing.”

But Warriors coach Steve Kerr understands how this scenario helps develop a team.

“I still maintain we have a chance to get a lot better and make a run,” Kerr said. “I realize that as we are currently constituted, we’re not a championship contender. I think that’s obvious. So I understand what Draymond is saying. After so many years of being a championship contender, it is tough to look at the standings and know we’re just trying to make it in the play-in. That’s a totally different deal than what we’re used to.

“But these are our circumstances. This is our reality. As I was saying before, everything matters organizationally going forward. Getting into the playoffs would be a big accomplishment and steppingstone toward next year regardless of what happens. This is something that should drive us with more of a big-picture thought in mind.”

New Orleans is in 11th place, two games behind San Antonio. The Pelicans want to get in because they need any kind of postseason experience with a group that is expected to grow into a top-tier team in the West over the next four, five seasons.

His parting shot shot at Cuban aside, Van Gundy preached the importance of adapting to the circumstances than worrying about the pros and cons of the play-in tournament format. 

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Van Gundy said. “We’re trying to get in it. So what my own personal thing is on what they should or should not have done with that doesn’t even matter. I don’t think about it. We’re trying to get in it. So that’s what is important to me.”

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