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The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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June 19, 2024

NBA’s play-in games: Diminishing the regular season’s value

The presence of weaker teams in the tournament creates a notion that the importance of the 82-game season is less meaningful and teams don’t need to push as hard when the league gives teams more second chances.
@JimmyButler via Twitter
The presence of weaker teams in the tournament creates a notion that the importance of the 82-game season is less meaningful and teams don’t need to push as hard when the league gives teams more second chances.

In the changing world of basketball, the NBA has experimented with different strategies to create more entertainment in the regular season. One of these new strategies is the introduction of the in-season tournament and minimum game requirements for awards. Yet, something prevents this from occurring, the adoption of the NBA play-in games. While they started as a successful solution to spice up the end of the season, play-in games affected the meaning of regular season games, giving players an extra safety net to make playoffs. With teams having records below .500 competing in the play-in games, the real value of the tournament has become extremely questionable.

On March 11, 2020, the NBA suspended their season for at least 30 days, which turned into a four-month hiatus due to the spread of the coronavirus. The league adopted a different schedule and shortened the regular season from 82 games to 72 games. To combat this, the league created a set of play-in games among the seven through 10 seeds where each conference’s seventh and eighth seeds start by playing each other for the seventh seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of the ninth seed versus the 10th seed game to obtain the eighth seed. In unforeseen circumstances, the shorter regular season was combated successfully using the play-in games. It now allows teams to slack off in the regular season and be complacent at the ninth or tenth seeds instead of fighting for true playoff spots. Though effective, the play-in game promotes a lower level of play throughout the regular season and gives teams a way into the playoffs, even with poor play. 

The play-in was not the first time the league implemented a strategy to make games more interesting. In the 2023-2024 season, the league adopted an in-season tournament for the first time, attempting to promote more meaningful play in the regular season. The tournament was popular but didn’t get unanimous support from the players. Furthermore, the league adopted new rules regarding MVP and All-NBA awards, establishing a minimum number of games played in a season to limit star players from sitting out for “load management,” when a team holds back a healthy player from playing a game for rest. These rules were all an attempt to further the importance and excitement of regular season games and were generally considered a success by NBA fans. Still, the play-in games halted this positive movement and hindered the promotion of regular-season games. This year, the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, two teams with records well below .500, made the play-in while teams with ten games over .500 competed in the same tournament. 

The tournament must be discontinued for significant reasons including team disparities. The teams that earned the seventh and eighth seed in each conference worked hard to get to that point, and they shouldn’t worry about poorly faring teams getting a second chance to eliminate them. The presence of weaker teams in the tournament creates a notion that the importance of the 82-game season is less meaningful and teams don’t need to push as hard when the league gives teams more second chances.

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In an interview with DeseretNews, Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert explained what he saw as a big issue regarding the play-in. 

“Would I like to be in that tournament,” Gobert said. “If you’re 10th, yeah. But if you finish seventh, after battling all year? It’s kind of tough if you’re seventh and you can lose your spot to 10th.” 

In this season’s play-in games, multiple star players got injured, impacting their teams’ chances of winning in the playoffs. First, it was star Zion Williamson, forward for the New Orleans Pelicans, who was injured in the seven-seed vs eight-seed game. The Pelicans moved on to the actual playoffs but Williamson was sidelined with a hamstring injury for the first round. His injury led to the Pelicans lasting just four games, losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. Likewise, the Miami Heat saw their star shooting guard Jimmy Butler get injured in the Eastern Conference seven-seed vs eight-seed game. He was ruled out for the entirety of their series against the Boston Celtics quickly, which caused them to lose to the Celtics in five games. These critical injuries show that the play-in games create a safety net but also create added risks for injuries that can significantly alter a team’s success in the playoffs. 

Instead, the NBA should adopt a new structure where the 16 best teams from the league face off in a March Madness-style bracket. The first-round games should be all best-of-five series while all other rounds would be best-of-seven series. The structure would promote a more competitive environment throughout the regular season, as teams would likely have to achieve a .500+ record and battle until the very last game to secure a spot in the playoffs. The league can continue to utilize conferences for scheduling purposes but would abolish the conference structure for the playoffs. Part of what makes March Madness so popular and appealing is the matchups with teams unfamiliar with each other under such important circumstances. This could result in interesting matchups like the Lakers and the Celtics in round one instead of a typical Eastern/Western Conference. 

Whitman varsity basketball player and avid New York Knicks fan Rowan Conroy says he watches the playoffs because it’s more entertaining and higher-level basketball. 

“I feel like there is much more energy and the players definitely want it more,” he said. “Teams that worked hard enough for the seven seed and a spot in the playoffs deserve to have it.”

In the 2023-2024 season with this proposed model, the worst team in the playoffs would’ve been the Miami Heat with a record of 46–36. Instead, the Chicago Bulls were allowed to compete in the play-in game with a record of 36–46. Not only does this promote lower levels of play during the regular season, but it also gives fans less intrigue during the playoffs because of certain matchups where teams can barely put up a fight. If the new system were in place this year, it would’ve created first-round matchups like Joel Embiid versus Nikola Jokic and Lebron James versus Anthony Edwards.

The play-in games cause the NBA season to decrease in value, with teams constantly sitting their stars in less important regular season games to prevent injury and fatigue. The league does a poor job of managing the schedule they produce in the regular season and instead focuses far too much on maximizing the amount of playoff basketball played. With this new potential format, the significance of the regular season games would increase and promote more intriguing playoff matchups.

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