LeBron James' criticism of the NBA play-in tournament is precisely why it's great

Henry Bushnell
·3 min read

It is anything but a coincidence that the strongest criticism of the NBA's new play-in tournament has come from the stars of two Western Conference contenders who feel threatened by it.

"Whoever came up with that s*** needs to be fired," LeBron James said Sunday.

"I don’t see the point," Luka Doncic said last month.

And on the surface, Doncic's reasoning made sense. "You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out," he said, touching on a problem that the NBA often refuses to reckon with: the playoffs render most regular-season games moot, and render the March-April stretch run undramatic. What, to LeBron, is the difference between the 5 and 6 seed? Why, in a normal year, would the Lakers care about finishing strong when the reward is merely a different matchup, and perhaps a more difficult one?

But now they care. Now they're worried. Now they're frustrated.

And their frustration is precisely why the play-in tournament could make the NBA better.

Why the play-in tournament creates regular-season drama

The Lakers care because the play-in tournament has forced them to care. Because finishing seventh, under this controversial new format, would leave them two losses away from elimination before their title defense can even begin. And because that risk would dent their championship odds far more than a simple matchup difference would.

In almost every NBA season since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, every legitimate title contender has been a playoff lock by March. And once they were locked into the 16-team field, their position within it hardly mattered. At best, a higher seed netted them an easier opponent and one extra home game. At worst, it was borderline irrelevant. Structurally, all 16 teams faced similar paths to the Finals. No empirical evidence suggested higher seeds were worth fighting for.

But security in the 16-team field is worth fighting for. The play-in tournament has created incremental incentives. The top six spots in each conference are now significantly more desirable than 7-8, which are significantly more desirable than 9-10, which are significantly more desirable than 11-15. And so every game played by every team on any of those three cut lines will matter.

Without the play-in round, this season's only true Western Conference playoff race would feature three teams — the Grizzlies, Warriors and Spurs — fighting for one spot.

With it, eight teams – the Lakers, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Warriors, Spurs, Pelicans and Kings – will scrap for positioning over the season's final three weeks.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, upper left, shoots as Toronto Raptors forward Stanley Johnson, lower left, and guard Rodney Hood defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
LeBron James is back from injury, but the Lakers have lost six of their last seven. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Don't like the play-in tournament? Then avoid it

The play-in tournament's short-term value, to NBA team owners and ESPN, is a few extra high-leverage playoff games — and, of course, the revenue that they bring.

But the long-term value is that it actually makes the regular season more dramatic, more entertaining and more meaningful.

If you don't like the risk of two games wiping out 72, Luka, then win more of the 72.

If you think it's s***, LeBron, then avoid it.

Without the play-in tournament, the Lakers could rest their stars and cruise to the playoffs as West favorites.

With it, they have to earn that label. And we, the fans, get to watch them battle for it in high-leverage games every other night.

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