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NBA playoffs: Is the play-in tournament a ‘mistake’ like Mark Cuban said?

(AP Photo / Tony Gutierrez)

Evidently, the Dallas Mavericks are not fans of the NBA’s new playoff format involving a play-in tournament.

For the second consecutive year, the league implemented a play-in tournament to its postseason schedule, allowing the teams with the ninth and tenth-highest winning percentages in each conference the opportunity to compete for their conference’s eighth seed.

The NBA rolled with the play-in format, albeit in a different fashion, during its time in the bubble in the summer of 2020.

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In the 2020 NBA playoffs, a ninth-seeded team had to finish within four games of the eighth seed to qualify for the play-in round. The ninth seed would have to beat the eighth seed twice, while the eighth seed team would only have to win once.

Only the Western Conference saw a play-in game in 2020, and the format didn’t change seeding as the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers beat the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in one game.

For the 2020-2021 season, however, the NBA decided to spice things up a little bit. Instead of having the potential for a play-in game, the league made a guarantee that there would be multiple play-in games in each conference.

So, from the get-go, the league’s 30 teams knew that they would have to fight for the sixth seed in their respective conference if they wanted to avoid having to play an extra one or two games.

Then, the two teams that land in seventh and eighth place would play each other, and the two teams that finished in the next two spots in the standings would go head-to-head, as well.

The winner of the game between the seventh and eighth advances to play that conference’s second seed in the actual bracket. The loser? They would have to play the winner of the game between the ninth and tenth-place teams for a chance at the eighth seed.

While many basketball fans love the idea of some added March Madness-esque drama to the NBA’s postseason, some that are actually a part of the league aren’t so thrilled.

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After a loss on Monday, April 12, the Dallas Mavericks’ record dropped to 29-24, good enough for seventh place in the Western Conference.

In any other season, that spot in seventh place would allow for some breathing room in a team’s pursuit of the postseason. In 2021, there’s the potential that you would have to play an extra game in order to keep your playoff spot.

Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who has put together an impressive campaign despite Dallas’ rollercoaster of a year, voiced his displeasure with the play-in format, and the potential for his team to get sent home quickly after a 72-game season.

“I don’t understand the idea of the play-in [tournament],” Doncic said, according to ESPN’s Tim McMahon. “You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point of that.”

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was a part of a unanimous vote in favor of the play-in format before the season started, didn’t hold back with his own comments about the idea.

“The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule,” Cuban told ESPN in response to Doncic’s comments. “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.” 

Cuban added onto the criticism, saying, “in hindsight, this approach was an enormous mistake.”

While the comments may sound like sour grapes, and may seem like a driver complaining about a ticket when they knowingly parked their car in the wrong spot, others that would benefit from the play-in tournament don’t even see it as a positive.

Weeks before Doncic and Cuban expressed their displeasure, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green told reporters that the play-in format “does not motivate” him. At the time of his comments, the Warriors were in ninth place in the Western Conference.

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“To be honest with you, I don’t go into these games thinking like, ‘Man, we need to win these games to get to the playoffs,'” Green said. “I hate f—ing losing, so when I step on the floor, I want to win. But I’ll be 100 percent honest with you, fighting for a play-in spot does not motivate me.”

When asked if his opinion would change a few weeks later if the team was still on the fringe of a postseason spot, Green said, “No, it still won’t motivate me.”

“Playoff basketball is definitely motivating, but a play-in game don’t motivate me,” Green said. “And that won’t change today, tomorrow, in a month or two months or two years from now.”

Even Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant, whose team finished in ninth place in the 2020 bubble and had a shot at squeaking into the postseason bracket via a play-in game, didn’t agree with it when asked in July of 2020.

“Honestly, I don’t think [it’s fair],” Morant said. “But, you know, we can’t control that. Only thing we can control is how we go out and attack each of these games before that decision is made.”

So, a team that is negatively impacted by the play-in format doesn’t like the idea. Players on teams that would be positively impacted by the play-in format don’t like the idea. If both sides have a mutual agreement, does that confirm Cuban’s comment that the tournament is “an enormous mistake” of an approach?

Not necessarily.

Yes, there’s the risk of having teams with worse records from the regular season usurping a team that finished in seventh place in their conference. Yes, there’s the increased workload for those teams that are forced to play more than others, especially if they have to fight for an eighth seed in the final play-in game.

But, it also helps to prevent a team that is playing its worst basketball around the start of the postseason from representing the conference in a top-tier matchup against a top seed or second seed.

It could save the league from having a team that was impacted by a late-season injury, and therefore saw their seeding drop late in the year, involved in a high-profile, uneven series.

And, most importantly, it creates more competition and makes for more entertaining basketball at the end of the regular season, during the play-in format, and throughout the first round of the playoffs.

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Yes, there are negatives to consider. A solid, seventh-seeded team could see an injury pop up during an extra game before a postseason tilt against a conference’s second seed. Players could get worn down from having to play 48, or even 96, extra minutes of basketball before the postseason.

But, when every single one of the league’s 30 teams approves of the idea before the season starts, and everyone operates under the same rules, it’s on them to execute.

If they don’t want to deal with the play-in tournament, then that extra energy spent wondering about the format could be used on a push towards the conference’s sixth seed.

What are your thoughts on the play-in tournament format? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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