“Whoever came up with this – must be fired,” LeBron said of the play-in tournament, after the Los Angeles Lakers lost to Toronto on Sunday night.
LeBron’s criticism echoes that of Luka Doncic and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, both of whom have recently criticized the new play-in format. No coincidence, the Mavericks and Lakers both risk having to play their way into the playoffs thanks to the play-in tournament. Obviously, they won’t think it’s fair that a team that has played all season to earn a playoff spot would then have to go through a potential three-game streak.
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But here’s the deal: things are changing. And this change, like the expansion of the Major League Baseball playoffs, is in the best interests of the NBA and its players. Keeping more teams in the search for a play-in spot discourages tanking, and the play-in streaks themselves are an additional source of income that will eventually flow into the pockets of players and teams. When these guys start accepting less money, then they can complain about how that money is being generated.
Plus, is LeBron really going to play the fairness card just because the new post-season system might not work in his favor this year? The guy played in the Eastern Conference for 15 years. Is he really to take the fairest path to his eight consecutive final places? Go talk to Chris Paul or Damian Lillard about the fairness of the traditional two-conference setup.
LeBron had the advantage of not even having to show up until the second round of the playoffs, if so, for the majority of his playoff career. Now are we supposed to cry for the man because he suddenly has to lead his team into the top six? Rather, he should direct his frustrations on his teammates, which allowed the Lakers to slip into that precarious position – tied in the losing column with No.7 Portland – in LeBron’s prolonged absence.
For years, the NBA playoffs have rewarded relative mediocrity. Basically every team with a working heartbeat comes in. This is not true. The Mavericks, Lakers, and Blazers are all great teams, and they fight to win every game. In the past, it would be nothing more than a heap of mixture of seeds and rest. The difference between a 6 and 7 seed was not large enough to prioritize victory. It’s now.
The same goes for the 7-8 row, as the difference is that you only have to win one match to make the bracket, as opposed to two if you’re the bottom seed. The same goes for the 8-9 fight. If you’re the # 8 seed, you get two hits to win a play-in streak. You might only need one win to enter. The No.9, on the other hand, needs to win three games in two series to enter. The No.10 must win four games.
Every seed you drop has legitimate consequences. That makes for a regular season already largely irrelevant to at least a minimum of intrigue down the straight. At the end of the day, it’s all about entertainment. It’s about engaging as many fans as possible. This is why these guys are making hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the product. The play-in tournament should be adopted permanently.
Frankly, the redesign shouldn’t end there. The NBA should be taking a serious look at their entire product line right now. The post-season structure is still not quite fair. People say the conference imbalance works in cycles, but what does that make sense? So it has been harder to cross the West for decades, but when the pendulum moves (if it ever starts again) East being the most difficult conference, will it be better?
It’s still unfair. That still eliminates the opportunity for a lot of really exciting playoffs that just can’t happen in the current format. We’ve never seen Kobe Bryant and LeBron play in a playoff series. Is it somehow good for the NBA product? No it is not.
While we’re at it, the five-minute reviews aren’t in the last two minutes either. The last minutes of NBA games are appalling. There is no argument to the contrary. All of the drama is zapped into the reviews, fouls and timeouts and a bit of basketball mixed in between. It really is horrible. Heck, even when you win you are enticed into fouling these days. Up to three? Just hack and fans can watch some meaningless free throws instead of a 3-point potential.
Is this what fills the seats? Is this what sells television contracts? No. Do you know what looks good on the marquee? A potential play-in match between Stephen Curry and LeBron James. And it’s on the table. Or we could see Damian Lillard vs. Curry in a winning or returning March Madness type match. This is what people will gather in arenas, sports bars and lounges to watch.
If LeBron doesn’t want to play these games, there is a very simple solution: don’t put yourself in the position of having to. Win more games. Because it is not a question of fairness. The timing and conference imbalance is already very unfair, and once again, LeBron was on the softer side of this imbalance for years. Now a small part of this bill is coming to an end. It’s more difficult in the West. It’s more difficult with this play-in tournament. And in this case, the hardest part is what makes it better.