Ahead of the 2020 NBA restart, LeBron James said he was a fan of the league having a play-in tournament to determine the final seeds of the playoffs. With his Los Angeles Lakers in danger of dropping into a play-in one season later, James' tone has changed.
The loss was the Lakers' third straight and seventh in their last nine games, dropping them into a three-way tie for seeds 5-7 with the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers. The Lakers would have the No. 6 seed and avoid the play-in if the season ended today because of tiebreaker advantages over Portland.
Seeds Nos. 7 and 8 are set to play a one-game playoff for the No. 7 seed following the end of the regular season. The loser of that game would go on to play the winner of a game between seeds No. 9 and No. 10 to determine the No. 8 seed.
The NBA instituted the play-in on a unanimous vote ahead of the 2020-21 season on a one-year basis. As the regular season has gone on—a season mired by COVID-19 and injuries—some have voiced their displeasure. Mavericks governor Mark Cuban, who voted in favor of the play-in, called his vote an "enormous mistake" last month, telling ESPN's Tim MacMahon:
"I get why the NBA is doing it. But if we are going to be creative because of COVID, we should go straight up 1-20 and let the bottom four play in. This is the year particularly to do it since the 10 games cut [from the normal 82-game schedule] were in conference.
"The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top six since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous. So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days."
Most of Cuban's criticism is related to the league's condensed 72-game regular season for 2020-21. He said a play-in during a more standard 82-game season, when teams are not forced to rest players because of the compression of the schedule, may be more feasible.
Others, including Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy, sensed a little bit of sour grapes coming from Cuban. Van Gundy noted that the criticisms only popped up when it was clear Cuban's team would be competing in the play-in.
The same could be said for James. If the Lakers were not struggling to keep their head above water amid their injury issues, it's fair to wonder if James' harsh critique of the play-in would have surfaced.
The play-in has worked from a league standpoint. Twenty-five of the league's 30 teams are still currently eligible for postseason contention with fewer than 10 games remaining. There is almost certain to be considerable excitement around the single-game format of the play-in as well, so it feels more likely than not that the play-in is around for the long haul.