Opinion: Why NBA should add play-in tournament in normal seasons

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The games brought unpredictable drama by the day and by almost every possession.

The Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs fought for an appearance in a play-in tournament that did not become decided until the last day of their final regular-season games.

With the NBA halting operations on March 11 because of the coronavirus outbreak, the league set up eight seed-in games partly to give playoff bubble teams a chance to make the postseason either by securing the eighth and final playoff spot or by having a play-in tournament between the eighth and ninth seed.

Even before eighth-seeded Portland beat ninth-seeded Memphis on Saturday in a game decided in crunch time, some in NBA circles openly rooted for the league to install this format for whenever a normal season awaits.

“Love it. Great idea,” Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “I think this is just another added element.”

It is another added element, however, that leaves some coaches and players feeling uncomfortable.

“It’s not fair,” Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield said. “In this type of scenario, it’s good. But in an 82-game regular season? We get 82 games. That’s the chance to get in. That’s enough of an opportunity.”

Portland's CJ McCollum (left) Memphis' Ja Morant go after a rebound during the fourth quarter in the Western Conference play-in game.

Nonetheless, the NBA has an opportunity to add more spice to its regular season. And it already has a clear sample size on how this play-in tournament offered additional intrigue.

When might that happen? Who knows. As Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni observed, “the virus will determine what happens.”

The NBA is currently consumed with ensuring it can finish the rest of this season. Then it will determine whether it can begin next season in bubble setup at one or multiple sites, or even begin opening games to fans.

Whenever a normal season awaits, the NBA only has to look at how this playoff race played out en route to the play-in tournament.

Portland offered drama almost every night. Damian Lillard went on scoring binges. CJ McCollum fought through a back injury. Carmelo Anthony showed flashes of his Hall of Fame resume. Jusurf Nurkic thrived despite his season-long injury rehab and losing his grandmother because of COVID-19. Though the Grizzlies squandered their eighth-seed standing entering the season restart, rookie Ja Morant offered more evidence he will become one of the league’s best stars.

The Suns won all of their eight seed-in games, but still fell short. The Spurs came close to making another playoff berth. Instead, their postseason streak ended after 22 years. The Pelicans tried to deliver NBA ratings gold with rookie Zion Williamson.

“It’s always good to have additional competition,” Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “You’ve seen that in college with different additions in the NCAA tournament. You see it in Europe with the national cups that come sometimes in the middle of the year. You get to reward more teams for the work that they put in and it creates some additional interest publicly for the game.”

Some around the league might still have reservations, but consider the qualifiers.

Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel described himself as a “traditionalist,” but his 2014-15 Indiana Pacers team would have benefited under this new idea after missing the playoffs that season because the Brooklyn Nets won the head-to-head matchup tiebreaker.

Nonetheless Vogel deferred to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league office because “they do a great job being innovative and trying to make the game better in every way they can.”

Kings coach Luke Walton argued, “in a normal 82 game season, if you finish with the eighth best record, you’ve done your job to deserve the playoffs.” Nonetheless, Walton admitted he would certainly watch any play-in tournament because “it will be entertaining.”

The NBA has faced increased challenges on attaching meaning to regular-season games in an era when more players rest and more fans rely on watching highlights on social media than watching the entire game on television.

But the NBA should not go to a play-in tournament just to improve ratings. It should add a play-in tournament because it improves how the end of the regular season can play out.

Fewer teams are likely to tank the end of the season if they have a better chance at making a play-in tournament than improving their odds in the NBA draft lottery. For the teams seeded five through eight, they will feel more inclined to ensure a four-game cushion over the eventual ninth seed so they can avoid a play-in tournament.

Though the top contenders treated part of the seed-in games as time to rest their star players, they will not do that as much in future seasons because they will care more about home-court advantage once fans can fill the arenas again.  

“I always believe that when you give more teams incentive to possibly get to the postseason, it’s always good,” Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “About half of our league is involved in the playoffs if there’s another part of it that’s not. But the more people you can engage into the playoffs, it would be a great thing.”

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