If this season was like most others, Washington, Chicago and Toronto would be pretty much out of the race by now. The Wizards were 17-32 not that long ago and have not spent one day over .500 in the last three seasons. The Bulls just had a stretch where they lost 11 out of 14 games. The Raptors started 2-8 and recently had a nine-game losing streak, their worst run in a decade.
And yet, they’re all absolutely in the postseason mix.
The NBA’s play-in tournament is coming, meaning the races toward the bottom of the Eastern and Western Conferences over the final four weeks might be just as compelling as the ones at the tops of the standings down the stretch. Adding four more teams to the postseason equation, as one would expect, opens the have-a-chance floodgates considerably. Again, in standard times, there would be nine teams right now with a realistic chance at securing one of the eight playoff spots in the East and 10 sections for the eight slots out West. With the play-in, as many as a half-dozen, more teams can still say they’ve got a shot.
Some people love the idea.
“We’re trying to get in,” New Orleans coach Stan Van Gundy said.
“I don’t see the point,” Dallas’ Luka Doncic said last week.
But if the Mavericks are one of the play-in teams – a genuine possibility – then Doncic would need to see the point right away. Whether someone likes the idea or not, the notion of needing to go through the play-in round to make the playoffs certainly beats the alternative of not making the playoffs at all.
The premise couldn’t be more straightforward. The top six teams in each conference are assured spots in the playoffs – and their biggest reward might be that they’ll all get at least five days to rest before having to play Game 1 of Round 1, which will be a most welcome break after this jampacked regular season.
For the eight play-in clubs, things stay hectic.
The season ends Sunday, May 16. On May 18, the play-ins begin – six games in all, every one of them either sending the winner to the playoffs, the loser home for the summer, or both. The No. 7 and No. 8 seeds will get two chances to win one game; the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds must go 2-0, or they won’t make the playoffs.
It has already given teams like the Wizards – a team that was wracked with virus-related issues earlier this season and didn’t play for two weeks while the roster was decimated – plenty of newfound hope. “I think if we can put a nice little run together, I think we can give ourselves a nice little chance,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said.
And he freely admits that he’s already scoreboard watching, just to see where the Wizards are in the standings on a moment-to-moment basis: “One-hundred percent,” Beal said. Added Wizards coach Scott Brooks refers to the platform where just about every NBA game is shown: “League Pass is the greatest invention ever.”
At this time of year, he might be right.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had been thinking about a play-in round for a while, and a version of it came into play last season when Portland faced Memphis for the No. 8 spot in the West playoffs. The Blazers had to win one game, the Grizzlies would have had to win two, and Portland took care of matters by winning the opening matchup to earn a first-round date with the Los Angeles Lakers.
It didn’t take long for the league to put into place the plan for a bigger play-in this season, officially on a one-year basis though nobody will be surprised when it doesn’t go away next season. Even teams that aren’t going to be in the play-in round – but might be awaiting the winners from it – seem intrigued by what will happen with those games. “I love the excitement for the league,” Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst said. “I love that Adam Silver and the league and the ownership groups that are in place now are progressive, and they are willing to try different things to generate revenue and generate interest for our game. I think it does just that. I think they’re fascinating, compelling games, compelling matchups.”
Detractors have plenty of valid reasons to hate on the whole idea.
It does raise the possibility that a No. 7 seed could lose two games and get bumped by a No. 10 seed that finished well back of them in the standings and increases the likelihood that more teams with losing records get into the postseason. And, as Mavs owner Mark Cuban pointed out, it will mean more games in short order for couples that will have already played a bunch to close the regular season – followed by a very tight turnaround before the playoffs start.
That said, it will generate attention. And eyeballs. And probably some revenue.
Plus, it’ll give us a bunch of matchups that feel like Game 7s before any Game 1s even get played.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at Reynolds(at)ap.org.