The NBA play-in game format is great – unless you’re trying to avoid it.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Mavs star Luka Doncic and LeBron James have complained about the play-in game mainly because they won’t want to be a part of it.
James is the latest to criticize the format, saying after Sunday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors, “Whoever came up with that (expletive) needs to be fired.”
James is wrong. President of league operations Byron Spruell and his basketball operations staff might get raises.
The only reason James doesn’t like it now is because the Lakers are in danger of falling into the play-in game format and potentially missing the playoffs.
The play-in game format has fulfilled its intended effect. More games matter, and that’s what the NBA wanted.
The play-in format works like this: seeds 7-8 play each other and seeds 9-10 play each other. The winner of 7-8 gets the seventh seed and the loser of 7-8 plays the winner of 9-10. The winner of that game gets the eighth seed. The 7-8 seeds need to win just once to make the playoffs and 9-10 seeds need to win twice to make the playoffs.
Sunday’s Raptors-Lakers game was a perfect example of making a late-season game meaningful. In a season with no-play-in format, the game would have had little consequences. The Lakers would be locked into a playoff spot and the Raptors would be too far out of a playoff spot.
With the Lakers having to fight to avoid the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, LeBron James became the latest critic of the format. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill, AP)
Fans have complained about those empty games for years.
But now, the 11th-place Raptors are trying to win games to get into 10th spot and the Lakers need to win games to avoid the play-in format. And Kyle Lowry treated us to one of those special Lowry games: 37 points and 11 assists. Not sure we get that if that game didn’t matter.
I get why the Lakers (and their fans) don’t like. They are in danger of falling into the seventh spot. Right now, they are in sixth place tied with seventh-place Portland – ahead in the standings based on head-to-head.
The Lakers have lost seven of their last 10 and have a difficult remaining schedule: Denver, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, Phoenix, New York before finishing against Houston, Indiana and New Orleans.
And starting point guard Dennis Schroder may miss 10-14 days due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Every remaining game matters for the Lakers. Even if they hold onto the sixth spot, that could mean a first-round series against Denver. Or, the Lakers could face the Clippers in the first round.
And if the Lakers fall into seventh spot, they could get Memphis, Golden State or San Antonio in the play-in game. Lakers-Warriors in a play-in game would be a treat.
The Lakers aren’t the only team facing this situation. Dallas and Portland would also like to avoid the play-in game and same with New York, Atlanta, Miami and Boston in the Eastern Conference. That makes for compelling games in the final two weeks of the season.
The play-in game has another intended benefit. Less tanking or at least less focus on tanking. Up until recently, 24 of 30 teams had a shot at the playoffs. That’s dropped closer to 21 teams. That’s a net positive, too.
If James and the Lakers were entrenched in spots 1-4, he’d probably like the format. More than anything, it was frustration from James, who in his second game back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for 20 games and then had to leave the Raptors game early because of that ankle. The Lakers are 0-2 since his return.
Injuries and COVID-19 protocols have impacted the Lakers’ season – just as they have for many teams. The Lakers are in an unexpected predicament.
James’ words carry significance, and NBA headquarters in New York didn’t miss what he said. But the league doesn’t implement postseason changes only to withdraw when its star isn’t happy. Now, will the NBA's TV partners be upset if James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers don't make the playoffs. Sure. But that's the cost of business, and besides, the Lakers and James didn't make the playoffs in 2019, and the league didn't crumble.
It’s getting tight down the stretch for several teams, leading to the intriguing finish the league expected.
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