If the NBA decides to rename its Play-In Tournament, which debuts Tuesday, the Annual Trade-Off Tourney has a nice ring to it.
Nearly every league has grown its postseason in recent years. By having four teams from each conference battle for two sets of 7- and 8-seeds this week, the NBA is just the latest to watch the pros and cons of such tinkering be discussed by stars and fans alike.
“Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” LeBron James said of the tournament, earlier this month. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has called it an “enormous mistake.” Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on the other hand, said, “I love it.” It’s all a matter of perspective.
The NBA has justified the tourney as a way to give fringe playoff teams a final chance at the end of a shortened season complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, critics say that the end-of-season competition has only made a grueling campaign more difficult on its players.
For ESPN and TNT, the Play-In games provide high stakes content, but also risk eliminating some of the league’s biggest draws.
The format requires explaining. In each conference, the first set of games pit the No. 7 seed vs. No. 8, and No. 9 vs. No. 10. The winner of the 7-8 matchup secures the 7 seed in the playoffs, while the loser faces the winner of the 9-10 game in a win-or-go-home contest for the 8 seed. But that is also a result of compromise. Some pushed for eligibility requirements that would have looked at how many games separated each team before deciding how many would make the Play-In Tournament. That was deemed too complicated a feature.
The name itself was negotiated as well. While the NBA could have called these games the beginning of its playoffs, that would mean 20 of its 30 teams make the dance, leading to a “What is actually the first round?” debate like the NCAA Tournament has juggled since expanding its field past 64 teams.
Even the criticism of the event has its benefits, said Evan Wasch, NBA EVP, basketball strategy and analytics. “We didn’t anticipate this level of public discourse about the tournament, and obviously we can thank some of our players—notably LeBron and others—who talked a lot about it and brought attention to it,” he said in an interview. “So we obviously have gotten the story out there, and hopefully the fan interest and engagement with the games will be commensurate with that.”
The concept will be re-evaluated in the offseason. So far though, the league has gotten everything it could have asked for, conversation included.
The Lakers and Warriors will play Wednesday on ESPN, bringing James and Steph Curry their first postseason face-off since the 2018 NBA Finals. In the East, TNT will get at least one Celtics game. Boston will face the Wizards Tuesday for a No. 7 seed after the Hornets and Pacers play. The Spurs and Grizzlies will play Wednesday for the right to face either the Lakers or Warriors.
Even before those tipoffs, Wasch believes the Play-In has delivered results, including contributing to a 25% boost in viewership between March and April. “That suggests at least in part that fans were tuning in to see these races take shape,” he said. “If we can fundamentally change those last two months of the regular season, that’s going to be a big win from a viewership and a business perspective.”
No matter how this week goes, the league will continue to tinker. The WNBA this year has added an in-season competition, the Commissioner’s Cup, which will culminate in a championship game of its own in August. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is reportedly eyeing a similar event for the men’s league. If they’re looking for a name, I know one that’s available.