The 2020-2021 NBA season brought with it a multitude of changes thanks to COVID-19 and its effect on last season. The Finals, last year, ended around the time when the following season would begin. In order to have a season with a legitimate amount of games, teams were forced into a quick turnaround and get back to playing basketball.
The teams that played in the NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, only had 71 days worth of offseason before the following season that began on December 22.
With the inevitable changes to the 2020-21 NBA season, the league saw this as an opportunity to tinker with its current regular season and playoff format that has been in use for decades. Not only were there 10 fewer games this season, 72 instead of the usual 82, but a new portion of the postseason was introduced, being the Play-In Tournament.
This tournament, pushed heavily by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, consisted of the teams seeded seven through 10 in each conference. In this tournament, the seventh seed would host the eighth seed in a game to determine who will enter the playoffs as the number seven seed and play against the number two seed. The loser would have to play another game against the winner of the ninth and 10th seed game. In this final game, the winner would earn the eighth seed and play the one seed in the first round.
The tournament, as currently constructed, consisted of six games, three in each conference, and provided for some playoff-level intensity.
With most of these games being single elimination, win-or-go-home type games, each team had to bring out their best to ensure a spot. A major criticism of the NBA’s season format is that the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot. With 82, or in this case 72 games in the regular season, individual games hardly mean anything. By the time the season starts coming to an end, teams are well aware of where they stand and many begin ramping down the amount of effort. Teams at the top of the standings begin resting their players for the playoffs and teams at the bottom essentially throw in the towel knowing there is no chance of making it past the regular season.
The Play-In Tournament aims to rectify that. For this inaugural tournament, only teams in the sixth seed and above were guaranteed a best of seven playoff series. On the flip side, teams down to the 10th seed had a chance to play their way into the playoffs. In a time where intrigue in the NBA is waning, the Play-In Tournament is a way to garner viewership for winner-take-all games. The Play-In game between the Lakers and Golden State Warriors brought in 5.6 million viewers and was the most-watched NBA game since the 2019 Western Conference Finals. The Warriors, led by MVP Finalist Stephen Curry got a chance to knock the defending champion Lakers down to a single-elimination game.
Many discuss whether or not seeding in the playoffs really matters. Higher seeded teams more than usually win a best-of-seven series. Good teams can afford to have a bad game or two and still come out on top when it is all said and done. Despite falling down to the seventh seed and needing to participate in the Play-In Tournament, the Lakers are still considered by many as the favorite to come out of the Western Conference as long as its stars are healthy. This NBA season has seen a lot more parity with many teams such as the Knicks, Jazz and Suns exceeding expectations for themselves.
From recent comments made by Adam Silver, the Play-In Tournament looks like it is here to stay at least for the time being. He did explain that the league could potentially do some tinkering to the tournament’s format in the future, but that added intrigue during the end of the regular season and into the six-game tournament was a huge win for the NBA. The Play-In Tournament isn’t going to completely solve the entirety of the league’s regular season woes but is certainly a step in the right direction.
Silver hopes that the success seen through the Play-In could make teams interested in more revisions to the schedule, such as a potential mid-season tournament, but those discussions are far from being concrete.
Change is good when it comes to revising a professional sports league’s season. Not too long ago, Major League Baseball introduced the Wild Card Game that was met with a ton of skepticism but has become widely accepted among the baseball faithful. Last year the NFL expanded its playoff format to include an additional team in each conference and is adding an extra regular season game starting this upcoming year.
Many players and fans are still on the fence about the Play-In Tournament, but it should be no surprise to anyone that it will become a staple in the NBA as more begin to view it favorably. The Play-In Tournament is here to stay, whether it be in its current form or something a little different.