Luka Doncic says he doesn’t understand it. Mark Cuban says it’s “an enormous mistake.” But like it or not, the NBA play-in tournament will make its debut this year, giving more teams one last chance to make the playoffs.
If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, you’re not alone. The NBA play-in tournament will provide some drama in between the regular season and the first round of the postseason. Here’s a look at how the new format will work for all of the teams involved.
Bubble teams battle in play-in tournament
First, let’s talk about what won’t be changing. The top six teams in each conference will take the top six seeds in the playoffs, as usual. These teams will advance straight to the first round of the postseason without any further games.
Four teams in each conference will then fight for the bottom two seeds. Teams that finish between seventh and 10th in each conference will qualify for the play-in tournament, while teams that finish below that mark will be out of the running.
The seventh and eighth-ranked teams in each conference will play a single game, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed. Meanwhile, the ninth and 10th teams in the standings will play an elimination game, with the loser out of the playoffs.
Finally, the loser of the 7 vs. 8 game will play the winner of the 9 vs. 10 game. Whoever emerges from that contest will take the eighth seed in the conference. The higher seeded team will host all games in the play-in tournament. Once the tournament is over, the remainder of the playoffs will proceed as usual, with a best-of-seven series.
Essentially, the NBA play-in tournament works as a double-elimination contest, with the ninth and 10th teams in the standings starting with one loss. Another way to think of it is as being similar to the “page playoff” system used in a handful of sports, including curling, where the top seeds have two opportunities to advance, while the lower seeds must win twice to go through.
Cuban: Tournament could wear on players
The new play-in system provides added drama at the end of the season. It also incentives teams to fight for a top-six seed in order to avoid having to play added games to break into the playoffs. That should provide more excitement for fans down the stretch – not to mention during the tournament itself.
So why have some criticized the play-in tournament? Doncic bristled at the idea that a team could fall out of the playoffs with two losses after earning a spot over the course of 72 games, though he also said that his Dallas Mavericks would be fighting to try to avoid that by moving into a top-six position in the Western Conference.
Meanwhile, Cuban said that the idea might have merit – just not in this year’s compressed schedule.
“Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top six since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous,” Cuban told ESPN. “So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.”