The NBA is one of the most progressive leagues in professional sports. Players have more power than ever, and Commisioner Adam Silver has shown he’s not afraid to try new things. Just in the past year, the NBA had the playoff bubble, as well as a G-League bubble, introduced a challenge system, and a Play-In Tournament. The latter has gained some recent backlash from Lebron James as the end of the season approaches.
LeBron James on the play-in tournament: "Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 3, 2021
The Play-In Tournament is a Bad Idea
Why the Play-In Worked Before
In the context of last season, the play-in tournament was a fantastic idea. After a four-month hiatus, each team had only eight games to solidify their place in their conference. The standings at the end of each conference were already close, and such a quick turnaround was a disadvantage for the teams that were behind.
The NBA solved this by introducing the play-in. Teams that were close enough to the eighth seed were to play a short series to determine who gets into the playoffs. In the bubble, the Portland Trailblazers played the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Blazers advanced to the playoffs. This format gave each team a fair shot at the playoffs without compromising the teams involved.
Why the Play-In Doesn’t Work Now
The NBA decided to bring the play-in back for this season, but the circumstances are quite different. This season, the schedule is compressed and the players are under more stress than ever. Teams are playing more back-to-backs, with less rest, and the added load has reflected in the injury report. Star players have been in and out of their lineups, affecting award chances and team standings.
Putting the play-in on top of this compressed season is putting too much on the players. The league has spent years trying to reduce the number of back-to-backs in the name of player health, but the play-in flies in the face of all that effort. Teams in the bottom half of the playoffs are being forced to choose between player health and the postseason.
In Portland, Damian Lillard is battling hamstring and ankle injuries but is playing through it in an attempt to escape the play-in and secure extra rest days for his team. This is the most egregious example, but other teams like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks are dealing with similar issues. The NBA could be compromising the playoffs by adding this much pressure to its players before the playoffs even begin.
For the future, the play-in could be great. In a normal-length season with adequate rest, the play-in will separate teams that ended on hot streaks and teams that truly deserve the position. This season was simply the wrong year to make such a change.
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