Adam Silver’s vision of the Play-In game leaves its audience in purgatory

Draymond Green
The Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies matched up in a Play-In thriller. Photo from Mercury News.

Is there a more underappreciated workplace skill than making yourself look busy even you’re not? Or how about creating a problem for yourself, only to spend the rest of your shift fixing it, so it gives you something to do? That all sounds fine and well, until you realise you’ve opened Pandora’s Box and things are out of your control.

There are different levels to this of course. Managing to execute this with a billion-dollar business takes some doing. Adam Silver’s vision of what the play-in tournament for the 2020/21 season began well enough. But, much like creating your own problems, it has taken a turn for the worse.

Play-In Tournament 2021

The merits of a Play-In tournament harken back to last season in the NBA bubble. 22 of the 30 NBA teams were invited into the Orlando bubble to conclude the regular season and have a chance of making the playoffs. Much to the chagrin of NBA discourse, teams such as the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns were invited despite having overwhelming outside odds of finishing 9th in their respective conference. Ultimately, eight seed Portland defeated nine seed Memphis to confirm their spot in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

The bottom line was that we enjoyed last year’s play-in. We tipped our caps to Adam Silver. It was an impromptu move to an improvised season. No foul there. Silver’s approval rating was near-unanimously positive.

Trying to please everyone

This year the outcome and general sentiment has been mixed to say the least.

While NBA analysts are warm to the play-in tournament, those inside the league have concerns.

We heard LeBron James bemoan the logic of the play-in and going as far as saying the person who created the idea should be fired. This comes after the Los Angeles Lakers finished the season as the 7th seed and had to battle the Golden State Warriors to determine who will play the 2nd seed Phoenix Suns in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.


Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also raised concerns and pointed to the increased stress of players in an already compressed schedule. While Cuban’s concerns provide food for thought, there is a sense of revisionism to his comments. The play-in was all agreed on by the 30 owners of NBA teams – Cuban included.

LeBron’s comments are hollow and runs contrary to his previous stance of a play-in tournament.

Last year in the bubble, LeBron supported the idea of a tournament to determine who will make the playoffs. This year, with the Lakers languished in 7th due to injuries of LeBron and Anthony Davis, his comments come across as a reaction to being in 7th rather than disapproval for the tournament.

Valuing the regular season more… maybe?

The NBA regular season has traditionally been a slog to get through, both for players and consumers. By 30 games into the season we get a sense of what the standings will look like come April (May this season).

The not-so-subtle malaise of watching random Tuesday games in January can generate a sense of disillusionment among fans as attention is more focusing on hoping star players don’t get injured. The play-in, in part, was designed to provide an antidote to this.

Being a middling seventh seed now provides an air of caution because your playoff spot is not guaranteed, ergo finishing as one of the top six seeds in your conference becomes all the more important.

From a consumer’s perspective, the NBA Play-In creates excitement and a do-or-die feel to the games. The NBA does not capture its audience in the same way that the NCAA March Madness does. The one and done feel of a tournament is lost on the NBA. The play-in remedies this.

We saw last on Friday night in the overtime win for the Memphis Grizzlies over the Golden State Warriors that the teams were leaving it all out on the floor knowing that defeat will end their season. The magic of those games outside of the playoffs only comes around a handful of times a season – and none can equate to the stakes that the play-in offers.

Fair or foul or fun?

With Adam Silver sitting comfortably on his play-in goldmine, we should expect to see it continue next season. The play-in is imperfect. It will require amendments and caveats that reward winning, rather than promoting sub .500 basketball.

What went largely unnoticed is on the final game of the regular season between the 8th seed Warriors and the 9th seed Grizzlies in the winner takes all game, the stakes would have been MORE meaningful without play-in implications.

Ryen Russillo, on The Bill Simmons Podcast, pointed out that with the addition of the play-in tournament, Warriors-Grizzlies actually had less at stake because both teams were destined for the tournament regardless of the result. In any other season, the game would have been deciding who gets the final playoff spot.

The Lakers vs Warriors 7th vs 8th game on Thursday was the poster game of the play-in. It was a terrific game, featured all the stars and finished in dramatic fashion.

Amongst all the euphoria, the other three play-in games involving teams from the Eastern Conference were blowouts. Again, it’s not perfect, it’s not pretty, but it is the latest example of the NBA’s burgeoning showmanship and ability to reinvent its product for its audience.

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About Kelechi Ulu 16 Articles
It was during the 2018 Conference Finals my interest in the NBA began. Watching the Rockets and Warriors duel it out was something akin to a movie scene. It was then when I knew I was hooked onto the NBA... Since then I love reading all things NBA and listening to a plethora of basketball podcasts. It’s all for the love of the game

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