The Play-In tournament is a battle for the seventh and eighth seeds in both conferences. The tournament consists of three games played by the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth seeds in both conferences. The first game is played between the seventh and eight seeds. The winner of that game makes it to the playoffs and keeps the seventh seed. The second game is played between the ninth and tenth seed. The loser of that game is eliminated from the Play-In and the winner gets to play the loser of the first game in. The winner of the third game makes it to the playoffs with the eighth seed and the loser is eliminated.
Essentially the Play-In allows for the teams with the ninth and tenth best records to have a chance to make the playoffs. The Play-In also means that getting the seventh and eighth best records no longer makes a team automatically eligible for the playoffs.
The Play-In was introduced in an effort to allow more teams to be competitive. One of the problems with the previous playoff format was that near the end of the regular seasons it became pretty evident which teams would and wouldn’t make the playoffs. This led to teams that knew that they wouldn’t make the playoffs resting their star players and generally being less competitive. It would actually benefit these teams to lose games since not making the playoffs would qualify them for the draft lottery, an annual lottery consisting of all non-playoffs teams that determines who gets the top 14 picks in the upcoming draft.
Teams purposely losing games to get better lottery picks has been something the league has been trying to combat for years now. The Philadelphia 76ers infamously had the “Trust the Process” plan from 2013-2016 where their general manager Sam Hinkie traded for as many draft picks as possible and played weak lineups to lose games and get high draft picks. This would eventually work for them as they would go on to draft star players Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid who currently have them at the top of the Eastern conference, but it also led to years of nearly unwatchable basketball when they were purposefully losing.
While the Play-In has received mostly positive feedback from fans, players, and the media, there have been those who have criticized it. Lebron James notably criticized the new format this season.
“The playoff, whatever that thing is, whoever came up with that shit needs to be fired,” said James.
James was criticized for these comments as he was initially in favor of the Play-In last year when his Los Angeles Lakers team had one of the best records in the league. This season James and his co-star Anthony Davis have missed a large amount of games due to injuries and now the Lakers are set to play the Golden State Warriors in the Play-In.
Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, whose team has been hovering in and out of the Play-in seeding all season, was also critical of the new format.
“Obviously we will try to get the sixth seed. I don’t understand the idea of the Play-In. We play 72 games to get into the playoffs and then maybe lose two in a row and then you’re out of the playoffs, so I don’t see the point of that,” said Doncic.
Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban was also critical of the new format earlier this season, calling it a huge mistake. Cuban was also criticized for this comment since he was one of the members of the NBA Board of Governors that unanimously voted in favor of the new playoff format in 2020. A pattern that we can see emerge is that players and owners from teams who thought they would have better records, such as the Lakers and Mavericks, only become critical of the Play-In once they have to potentially participate in it.
This season’s Play-In tournament in the Western conference has the seventh seeded Lakers playing the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors in the first game. While there are some questions about whether Lebron James and Anthony Davis have had enough time to come back from injuries, the Lakers are easily the better team and I see them winning this game. There is always the possibility that Stephen Curry can have an explosive offensive game and lead his team to victory, but with the Warrior’s roster made up of many young players and Curry’s co-star Klay Thompson still out due to injury until next season, I see the upset as a very minor possibility.
The ninth seeded Memphis Grizzlies are set to play the tenth seeded San Antonio Spurs in the next game. Both teams have been inconsistent all season, partly due to injuries, so this game’s outcome is tougher to predict. I would give the Grizzlies the slight advantage since they have won five more games than the Spurs all season and the Spurs are going to be missing one of their best players, Derrick White, due to an ankle injury. That being said, the Spurs still have arguably the best player out of the two teams in DeMar DeRozan and legendary coach Gregg Popovich on their side so they shouldn’t be counted out entirely.
In the game for the eighth seed, I predict that the Warriors will defeat the Grizzlies. Both teams are close to each other in offensive and defensive rankings, but I think that Curry will be able to easily carry his team past the Grizzlies.
The Eastern conference Play-In has the seventh seeded Boston Celtics playing the eighth seeded Washington Wizards. After making the conference finals last season, the Celtics have had a massively disappointing season. With the recent news that Celtics star Jaylen Brown is out for until next season with an injury, I see Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal leading the Wizards to a win.
The ninth seeded Indiana Pacers will be playing the tenth seeded Charlotte Hornets in the second game. The Pacers have had a tumultuous season similar to the Celtics. I see the Hornets, who have recently gotten their star rookie Lamelo Ball back from injury, defeating the Pacers.
In the fight for the eight seed, I see the Celtics defeating the Pacers. Despite their rocky season, the Celtics still have their star players Jason Tatum and Kemba Walker who could easily help their team win the game against the Pacers.
As far as what the winning teams of the Play-In can do once they make the playoffs, I see all of them except for the Lakers losing in the first round. If their star players are fully healthy, the Lakers are still considered by many people to be the favorites to come out of the Western conference. It is unfortunate that the Phoenix Suns, who have had a breakout season thanks largely to their acquisition of all-star point guard Chris Paul, will likely have to play the defending champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
The greatest achievement of the Play-In tournament is that it has made the end of the regular season interesting for the first time in the NBA. What was once a time for contending teams to rest their players and losing teams to give up is now an unpredictable and exciting battle for the seventh and eighth seeds that can have major effects on the way the playoffs shape out.
The Play-In tournament starts Tuesday at 6:30 ET with the Indiana Pacers facing off against the Charlotte Hornets.