Initially created in 2019-2020 to give more teams a better chance to compete in the pandemic-challenged season, the NBA added a play-in bracket to the 16-team best-of-seven tournament. It’s still here after a season that had few disruptions.
Running from April 12 to 15 in 2022, the pre-tournament play-in featured four teams with the seventh and eighth-best win-loss records in each conference. The seventh-ranked team played the eighth for one game. Then the loser of that game must play a best of three against the winner of the ninth and tenth-ranked teams to earn the eighth playoff spot. The higher-ranked team had the home-court advantage. The seventh seeds were the Timberwolves in the West and the Nets in the East. The eighth seeds were the Pelicans in the West and the Hawks in the East. The tournament then got underway on April 16.
The marquee matchup in 2021 was the Warriors with Steph Curry versus the Lakers with LeBron James. It attracted an average television audience of 5.6 million, which is impressive for any sport that isn’t the NFL. Ironically, James said people should be fired for creating the format. Despite this criticism, viewership numbers of the James-Curry matchup were no anomaly. Numbers are up overall, and even the small market matchups have respectable numbers.
Change is good!
MLB’s expansion of the wild-card has been a success, and the same should be said about the NBA’s play-in tournament. Anything within reason that generates additional excitement around a sport is good. Advocates also quickly point out that staying in the hunt for those play-in spots can motivate teams to keep good players and add additional revenue to the team and the players’ bottom lines.
While the 16-team format includes a certain amount of mediocrity, some coasting used to happen with those six, seven and eight ranked teams. This is no longer the case. There is a big advantage between six and seven, eight and nine, where higher rankings mean precious rest days before the tournament begins. Games were played with seasons on the line, causing nail-biting excitement for fans.
Yes, the Timberwolves acted as if they won it all when they got their play-in victory. Yes, the play-ins did not knock anyone ranked higher this year. But all in all, is more basketball ever really a bad thing? It’s not official, but the NBA sees no reason to discontinue the play-in format.