When the season was paused because of the pandemic last year, LeBron James went on a podcast and suggested an idea: The NBA should have the teams just in and outside the playoff picture duke it out for the last few spots in a play-in tournament, a format that the league actually went on to adopt.
On Sunday, with his team having dropped six of seven and falling further in the standings, James’ tone wasn’t quite the same.
“Whoever came up with that s—- needs to be fired,” the Los Angeles Lakers star said of the play-in tournament.
James originally came out against the idea in 2018 — when he told reporters the idea of a play-in was “wack” — but that didn’t stop critics from hammering the four-time champion for the timing of the flip flop.
James’ recent complaint only came as the Lakers entered a three-way tie with the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers for the fifth through seventh seeds in the West — meaning Los Angeles could be dragged to the play-in if the franchise finishes the season seventh. Under the format, seeds seven through 10 qualify for the play-in and only two will make it.
Last year, when James gave his support for the tournament, the Lakers were in first.
With two weeks of games left, the NBA’s regular season has arguably never mattered more down the stretch. Most teams have less than 10 games remaining, though there’s still enough time for the seedings in each conference to dramatically change. Not only is there a clump of teams in the West trying to avoid the play-in, but the East has teams like the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (35-30), No. 6 Miami Heat (35-30) and the No. 7 Boston Celtics (34-31) also jockeying to have a guaranteed playoff spot.
Despite the intrigue, the existence of the play-in tournament has seemingly created a divide between the NBA’s elite and non-elites.
James, the sport’s biggest star, joined Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Mark Cuban as those adamant against the change. Others like Wizards’ coach Scott Brooks said he’s a big fan of the format — though it should be noted that Washington stands to benefit greatly from the rule shift.
“I’d love it, even if we weren’t in this position and we were at (the) fifth or sixth spot,” Brooks said. “You should always try to make it as competitive as you possibly can.”
Brooks, whose Wizards held the 10th spot entering Monday’s action, said he thinks the format is helping discourage tanking. Rather than try to lose games for a better draft position, Brooks said he’s seeing more effort from teams late in the year who are vying for a playoff spot.
Indeed, the NBA seems to be proud of the correlation. The league told Sports Illustrated late last month that 24 of its 30 teams were still realistically in the hunt for either a playoff berth or home-court advantage. The league defined “still in contention” by using a four-game gap in the standings.
“Twenty-four is the highest we’ve ever had, in the history of the league, with a month left,” said Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told the magazine.
The play-in, which begins May 18, works like this: The No. 7 and No. 8 seeds square off in each, as do the No. 9 and No. 10. The winner of the 7-8 matchup wins the seventh seed, while the loser has to face the winner of the other game for a win-and-in matchup to determine the eighth seed.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most vocal critics of the format are those who have had worse-than-expected seasons. The Lakers, after all, are the defending champions, while the Mavericks were a popular pick to make a big leap this year.
Cuban, the Mavericks owner, said he made an “enormous mistake” voting for the format. Of course, he and the league’s 29 others unanimously approved the change, which figures to help raise the league’s bottom line.
“The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule,” Cuban told ESPN, referencing the league’s 72-game slate instead of the normal 82. “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 6 since the consequences … are enormous.
“So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.”
The end result, though, could produce some fascinating games. In the East, perhaps Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and the Wizards will get to face the Celtics for the eighth seed. If the Lakers slip to the seventh spot, maybe they’ll meet Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors (currently a half-game from the eighth seed) in the tournament with a playoff berth on the line.
Who wouldn’t want to see that?
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