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'It's Not Really Fair': NBA Insiders Debate Play-in Tournament's Value

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IMay 3, 2021

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

LeBron James may not like the idea of a play-in game now that his Lakers are in danger of being among its participants, but the jockeying among teams for the NBA's first annual play-in tournament seems to have captured much attention around the league. 

Dave McMenamin @mcten

LeBron James on the play-in tournament: "Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired"

If this sounds familiar, it is. The play-in tournament's value became a full-fledged storyline in April when Luka Doncic and Mark Cuban griped about the new circumstances for 7-seeds in each conference. And there is indeed a shared sentiment among coaches and team executives contacted by Bleacher Report that a play-in structure where just the 8-seed battles the winner of the 9- and 10-seeds would be preferred to this current format—specifically the fact that 7-seeds will start the tournament by playing the 8-seed for their own rightful spot after 72 games. 

"What if the 7-seed has a four-game lead on 8? And now it's gonna almost be like Game 7 of the Finals, win or go home? It's not really fair," said one Eastern Conference executive. "Anything can happen. And someone can get hurt." 

But there was also a level of excitement expressed for the drama these matchups can surely provide. Make no mistake: that grumbling executive compared these games in May, between the year's lowest caliber of playoff teams, to a Finals atmosphere. And these contests will be played in prime time, with no other NBA games competing for attention. 

"If you're a part of one or both of those, that's some sort of the argument for revenue, having a playoff environment in your building," said one team analytics staffer. Some teams like Charlotte, with rookie point guard LaMelo Ball, or Memphis, spearheaded by second-year dynamo Ja Morant, can surely benefit from reaching that stage—just as the Grizzlies did a year ago.

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It remains to be seen how this new postseason achievement will impact year-end evaluations for team management. Will qualifying for that prime-time slot in a play-in tournament appease an ownership mandate to make the playoffs? Adding two more franchises to the postseason mix may change that conversation altogether. 

"More teams are now involved in something that could be considered a performance metric," said the analytics staffer. "It's more cut and dry than in years past." Making the play-in tournament adds more context to a team's season than just being in the late lottery. 

However, some personnel aren't buying that. 

"If you finish 10th and lose, that's just not a good season. It's not," said one team scout. "New Orleans could make the play-in game, but they had a s--tty season. If you wanna fool yourself, great." 

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Consider perhaps the NBA's hottest team, Washington. The Wizards have stormed back into the Eastern Conference 10-seed by winning 10 of 12, with their only two losses coming by a combined four points. Washington now holds a three-game advantage over Chicago for the final play-in spot with just eight games to play.

It's an impressive final sprint after a tumultuous season riddled by injuries and health and safety protocols. But will a hot final stretch really silence questions about the the Wizards' leadership?

Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard is believed to be in the final year of his contract. And for all this excitement, ending this season as the 10-seed in a down Eastern Conference will mark the lower end of Washington brass' preseason expectations, sources said. Bradley Beal has consistently messaged his belief that the Wizards are a bona fide playoff contender as much as he's declared he has no intentions to leave Washington.  

Will this late-season burst be enough to keep head coach Scott Brooks in the nation's capital? It certainly wouldn't hurt for Washington to continue this run all the way into the 8-seed. "You do wonder if the Wizards go on to make the playoffs, does that buy their staff another year?" asked the team scout. "If they make the playoffs, they can say this is what they would have been if it weren't for all their injuries and COVID problems."

And take the Atlanta Hawks, who splurged in free agency this offseason after word circled that Travis Schlenk's front office had its own postseason requirement. The Hawks then let go of Lloyd Pierce following a disappointing start. And after elevating Nate McMillan, Atlanta has surged back into contention for the 4-seed. 

The Hawks only stand one game ahead of Boston for the perilous 7-seed. Even though a game or two will potentially separate one Eastern team from home-court advantage in the first round or a spot in the double-elimination tournament, that difference could appear sizable to team decision-makers.

How would a stumble to the 7- or 8-seed impact Atlanta's already murky contract discussions with John Collins? What about McMillan's status on Atlanta's bench, where he's so far led the Hawks to a 20-9 record after the team's 14-20 start?

"If he makes the playoffs, Nate will get full time there," said the scout. "I think Nate's done a good job, or he's made the most of the opportunity." 

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

A similar situation resides in Portland. There have been growing whispers among league personnel about head coach Terry Stotts' security. And a stretch of losing seven of eight games in late April sent the Trail Blazers back into that dreaded 7-seed that Atlanta is trying to avoid. There have also been mixed reviews on the addition of Norman Powell at the trade deadline. 

On the other hand, Portland has been dealt as many injuries as anyone. And Stotts remains one of the more respected offensive-minded coaches in the NBA. The Blazers have noted defensive issues, but should the onus be more on the front office for struggling to surround Damian Lillard with the right malleable pieces on the wing?

"He's always been a good coach," said another Eastern Conference executive. "I think they've failed in terms of personnel when it comes to the defense."  

Rounding out this conversation is the East's current 6-seed, the Miami Heat. Coaches around the league have been waiting for the Heat to resume their level of play from last postseason and jump into home-court advantage for the first round of these playoffs. They remain a team no Eastern rival wants to face in late May. And Jimmy Butler is as feared a superstar as any in the conference.   

But after 60-plus games, Miami is still stuck in this play-in muck with Atlanta, New York and Boston. "At a certain point, you are what your record is," said the analytics staffer.

If the Heat stumble in the play-in tournament or find themselves stuck at No. 7 with a first-round matchup against either the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers, how would that potential demise impact Miami's offseason plans? When the Heat surely pursue Kyle Lowry in sign-and-trade scenarios, the team's postseason success will likely factor into their willingness to include Tyler Herro in any package for Lowry.

Golden State's season outcome could color the Warriors' mindset toward the team's ever-approaching tax bill. Dallas, of course, has no interest in finding itself back at No. 7. Neither do the Lakers. Across the board in both conferences, each individual team outcome could have significant consequences.

"There's a lot at stake," said one Eastern Conference executive.

       

Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.

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