Does It Make Sense for NBA to Have a Play-in Game?

Carmelo and the Trailblazers square off with the Grizzlies Saturday for the right to face the Lakers.
Carmelo and the Trailblazers square off with the Grizzlies Saturday for the right to face the Lakers.
Image: Getty Images

With an NBA play bubble comes a new wave of postseason play, set to begin Saturday afternoon. The winner of the Portland Trailblazers/Memphis Grizzles showdown will become the 8th seed and be rewarded with a first-round series against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.


So on the heels of this play-in game, which could turn into three games if ninth-seeded Memphis wins Game 1, it seems like a good time to ask if a unique approach to do-or-die matchups like this could be a boon to the regular-season?

The last few weeks of NBA play have pushed teams like the Phoenix Suns into top form, showcasing a better product than most people believed was possible. An 8-0 record under any other circumstances probably would have been better rewarded. Looking at it from a holistic perspective, would the Suns have gone undefeated if it were eight traditional Phoenix games with nothing on the line? Who knows, but that extra push of a highly competitive backdrop with a playoff play-in game waiting for them at the end of the trail was all the push they needed to be competitive in Florida.

The last month of the season is typically a resting period. If you’re in the race for the eighth seed, it’s off to the races to see who can snatch it up. For everyone else, the focus turns to the NBA Lottery — where competitive play could actually hurt a team’s standing.

In the past, the NBA has tossed around the idea of a postseason play-in tournament as recently as the beginning of this season as part of a broader proposal to create a 78-game regular season with four teams in each conference duking it out for the final two seeds, but it never gained any steam. The goal was to make the end of the season more engaging than it traditionally had been.

Instead, Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner, re-voiced support for the play-in game happening Saturday.

“I do see this as something we would embrace going forward,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Sports Illustrated. “As you know, I’ve been talking about it for a while. We saw this as an opportunity to institute a form of it. I’m not sure if this would be the exact format going forward. But this is something we’d like to see stay.”


Brett Brown Sixers’ head coach has publicly pushed back against a postseason model play-in tournament.

“The play-in format is exciting. [But] I think with 82 games, that in itself warrants somebody getting in or not. So if I had to vote, I would vote no.”


From a player and fan perspective, we can see just based on how the bubble has worked; this would drum up excitement at the end of the season. From the team and player standpoint, the Suns and Trailblazers got a shot at the postseason they wouldn’t have gotten under any other circumstances. Plus, it would raise the bar for the product on the court the last two months of the season. We know from the moment All-Star weekend arrives, and teams begin to crunch numbers to see if they could make the postseason, the tanking begins, and the worst teams in the league focus on the draft, while the top seeds begin to sit their players for “rest.” Those last two weeks of the season can often be dreadful.

Whoever wins the game Saturday, kudos to them: but they probably won’t win the first-round series against LeBron and the Lakers. Still, the tournament-style play in the bubble for the Western Conference has become a small sample size of what a playoff tournament format could look like — and it’s certainly piqued interest in having it become a permanent part of the NBA Playoffs.