Report: NBA considering play-in tournament to decide final playoff spots

Yahoo Sports
The NBA’s considering a couple of proposals that could change the way the final four seeds in the NBA playoffs get determined. (Getty)
The NBA’s considering a couple of proposals that could change the way the final four seeds in the NBA playoffs get determined. (Getty)

“Two specific proposals are circulating at the highest levels within [NBA] teams and the league office” that would create a play-in tournament to decide the final two playoff teams in each of the NBA’s conferences, according to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe.

The institution of a major change to how the league sets the lower reaches of the postseason bracket isn’t likely to come any time soon. But Lowe’s sources report “some behind-the-scenes momentum” for an adjustment that proponents argue might spur “more teams toward the bottom of the standings [to] try until the end” of the season, rather than determinedly plummeting to the bottom of the standings in pursuit of draft-lottery treasure, and that might spark fan interest “during what can be a dead period of the NBA season — March and April.”

From Lowe:

The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot. […]

The proposal gives the seventh and eighth seeds an edge over teams that finish ninth and 10th — a method of making sure regular-season success means something in the play-in tournament. Teams that finish seventh and eighth get two chances to win one game to clinch a playoff spot, including a guaranteed win-and-get-in home game for each. The ninth and 10th teams need to win two games without a loss, and the 10th seed would need to win two consecutive road games.

Other top executives, including at least one prominent general manager, have pushed a simpler, shorter alternative: No. 7 hosts No. 10 in a winner-take-all for the No. 7 seed, and No. 8 hosts No. 9 in a winner-take-all for the No. 8 seed, per league sources. That approach appears too radical to gain widespread approval.

Lowe notes that this isn’t exactly a top priority for the league, trailing issues like addressing the draft’s age minimum/“one-and-done” rule and the possibility of seeding the playoffs based solely on teams’ records rather than by conference (an idea opposed by, among others, LeBronJames). There are a slew of practical checkpoints along the path — ironing out how the lottery would shake out should ninth- or 10th-seeded teams wind up supplanting No. 7 or 8 crews in the playoffs, getting the players’ union on board, getting at least 23 of the 30 NBA teams to sign off, etc. — that make it unlikely we’d see the tournament implemented any time soon, if ever.

We can’t dismiss it out of hand, though. For one thing, proposals like this have been floating around for years, with ex-Denver Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien (now director of player personnel for the Knicks) presenting his back in 2009 and then-ESPN columnist Bill Simmons (now of The Ringer) trumpeting his “Entertaining as Hell Tourmament” idea well before that. For another, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver seems awfully enamored with in-season tournaments.

Back in 2014, shortly after he took the NBA’s reins from David Stern, Silver said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that he liked the idea of introducing single-elimination tournaments into the NBA ecosystem as a means of maximizing the level of “anything can happen” excitement that comes with increased randomness in a single-game postseason sample. He’s also pitched mid-season tournaments in Las Vegas and Mexico, evidently inspired by club football’s establishment of multiple competitions — international events like the Champions League and Europa League, domestic ones like the FA Cup — that give teams multiple cups and titles to vie for, and giving their fan bases reasons to get energized even if their favorite team’s out of the running for the most prestigious hardware up for grabs.

As we’ve discussed before, the problem with adding an in-season tournament to the existing NBA calendar is that we’ve already got an 82-game slate that sees players and teams play back-to-back games and travel across time zones, sometimes multiple times a week. That, combined with increasingly sophisticated research producing detailed data that shows the effect of condensed-schedule exertion and travel-related fatigue on players’ performance and overall health, helped lead teams to more frequently rest marquee players, even during marquee games.

That angered the league office, leading to the NBA both extending the league’s calendar by a week, to reduce the number of back-to-back sets teams face and eliminate four-games-in-five-nights sets, and establishing rules and penalties to prevent teams from resting healthy players, to keep stuff like “the Cavs, Spurs and Warriors blowing up national primetime ratings” from happening again. (As Bleacher Report’s Tom Haberstroh recently noted, so-called “DNP-Rest” designations have declined this year, but that could well be due to teams “simply list[ing] a dummy injury in order to sidestep punishment from the league.”)

With everybody acknowledging that players need more time to be expected to play the same number of games, adding more games into that timeframe — even for the purposes of a play-in tournament that might spice up the late-season lull — would seem to be a nonstarter. Again, though, we can’t say “never” on this one. Not after Silver said back in October that “there’s nothing magical about 82 games,” and that the league will “invariably” look at the regular season’s length as it continues to consider “the long-term planning of the league, as we learn more about the human body and the wear and tear of travel and the competitive landscape.”

“In theory,” Lowe writes, “revenue from a play-in tournament — or a midseason tournament — could ease the league toward slashing a few games from the 82-game schedule, but it is unclear any such tournament would rake in sufficient cash.” Again: not clear, and not likely, but possible, and so worth continued consideration.


I’m not convinced that the NBA really needs this, that the problems such a tournament would purportedly solve — making it less enticing for teams to tank down the stretch, and keeping fans of all teams engaged as winter turns to spring — are A) really gigantic problems and B) ones that would be solved by this proposal. (Colin McGowan has what strikes me as a reasonably skeptical take over at RealGM.) But the league and some of its top executives continue to bat the idea around, so we’re going to keep hearing about it … even if we’re not likely to be printing up tickets for play-in games in time for the next presidential election.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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