How does the NBA Play-In Tournament work?

Let's breakdown the NBA Playoff Play-in 'Tournament'
May 14, 2021

Vancouver, British Columbia - Given the quick turnaround, this year has seemed like a run-on season for some, but the end is here with the playoffs on the horizon... in home arenas … with fans … and one huge wrinkle. The NBA has been ambitious in recent years with trying new things - All-Star selections and game format, shortening the shot clock to 14 seconds on offensive rebounds, changing All-NBA position requirements to name a few of late. All while managing a pandemic and less than a year removed from creating (successfully at that) an NBA Bubble to complete the 2019-2020 season. One carry over from the bubble was the idea of the ‘Play-In Tournament’. Last year it was out of fairness and necessity considering games were cut from the overall total, this year it was passed by owners to be implemented officially. Considering how much I watch and follow basketball, it wasn’t until recently that I digested the structure of the tournament. 

Let’s clear things up …

What is the Play-In Tournament?

  • Four teams (#7-10 seeds) from each conference play for the chance to fill the #7 and #8 seeds in each conference respectively. 

Who plays against who ?

  • Game 1 - #7 vs #8 seed - Winner claims #7 seed
  • Game 2 - #9 vs #10 seed - Winner plays the loser of Game 1
  • Game 3 - Loser of game 1 vs Winner of Game 2 - Winner claims the #8 seed

When does the Play-In Tournament start?

  • Tuesday, May 18 to Friday, May 21

What happens after the teams win the tournament? 

  • The winners of the Play-In tournament will receive the 7th and 8th-seeded positions in each conference. Following the Play-In Tournament, the NBA Playoffs will commence with the traditional 16-team, best-of-seven series structure. 

Are you in or out on this idea? Whenever you introduce change, there are pros and cons to consider. 

Pro - Win or Go Home

The NBA is a league of dynasties and its playoff format of 4 best of seven series leverages that every year, the best team truly does win out. This brings a fun wrinkle of do-or-die matchups where the NFL and March Madness have the NBA beat when it comes to fan interest. Best case from the NBA’s perspective this year is having a Lakers/Warriors matchup, featuring the league’s most marketable stars but with both teams ultimately making it.  

Pro - Photo Finishes

With changes to the NBA lottery in recent years and now seeds 1 through 10 viable for a playoff spot, it does increase the intrigue for late season games. Take the Lakers/Rockets matchup on Wednesday night. Any other year, nobody watches that game. No Bron or AD with LA already clinched a playoff spot in traditional years versus the worst team in the league. This year, that game had many ramifications to it and drew interest from around the league. Win (which they did) and now they have a chance to reach the 6-seed and out of the play-in game, lose and they're in deeper waters to make it in. 

Pro - Last Chance

Injuries play such a big part in every NBA season, the wider pool of teams eligible to make the playoffs allow for better teams to have a chance to rebound by the end of season. Take the Hornets for example, who were in the Top 4 of the East throughout the first half of the season before injuries to Lamelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, and Devonte Graham derailed their momentum. They will finish anywhere between the 7 and 10 seed by scratching and clawing throughout that time with at least a chance to make it… and enter the playoffs healthy. As it stands, they would play the Celtics in the #7-8 matchup who just lost Jaylen Brown for the rest of the season. It also shines a brighter light on those who don’t make the cut, the Pelicans went for it 100% this season and still didn’t make the play-in! That’s a cause for concern for New Orleans who will surely be looking to make changes over the summer and not waste one more year of Zion. 

Con - Tradition

That’s it. Do you risk taking away what is rightfully theirs for some teams. There will come a year where the #7-8 seeds are 4-5 games better than the #9-10 seeds and both end up on the outside looking in. Or we lose out on star power. This year for example, the worst case is not having Lebron James or Steph Curry not make the playoffs at all despite technically being one of the Top 8 seeds in the conference. Say the Lakers beat the Warriors, the Warriors then play the winner of Grizzlies/Spurs. If Steph sprains an ankle or gets in foul trouble and one of those teams pull out the win, the Warriors and Curry are adios! You can hear the talk shows now … ‘this is stupid! Steph has to be in the playoffs, they had the 8th best record!’. 

Final verdict - I’m all for it

No #7 or #8 seeds have ever won an NBA championship and outside of the NY Knicks of 1999, none have even made it to the Finals. So why not? Try it out a couple years, cause some chaos at the bottom of the standings and may the best team win.