It’s undeniable that COVID-19 has ravaged any hope for a normal NBA season. I feel like a broken record speaking about how the pandemic has forced leagues to make sacrifices and be creative. However, one aspect of this bizarre moment in sports that I think is being underappreciated is the NBA’s willingness to embrace innovation.
This was put on full display in the bubble: a unique event in sports that we will recall for years to come. In the NBA’s first full season under COVID-19's grip, it has continued to push the envelope with bold changes. My favorite of these is the advent of the new play-in tournament, which has single-handedly shifted the competitive landscape of the league in strange and beautiful ways.
To briefly recap the rules of the play-in, seeds No. 7 through No. 10 in each conference will be considered play-in teams. This is a departure from the traditional playoff in a few key ways. First, it makes seeds No. 1 through No. 6 far more coveted, as those teams are the only ones guaranteed to play in a playoff series. Seeds No. 7 and No. 8 will face off, with the winner securing the seventh seed and a spot in the playoffs. The loser will play the winner of a game between seeds No. 9 and No. 10, and the winner of that game will secure the final spot in the playoffs. This means that two of the four teams will make the playoffs, emerging from what will surely be intense, entertaining games that whet our appetites for the playoffs.
I love what the play-in has done to the parity of the league. In each conference, I can count at least one competent team that will fall beyond the No. 11 seed and miss the play-in entirely. Additionally, many mid-seed teams are only barely clinging to their spots. As of April 1, there are three games of separation in the Eastern Conference between the fourth-seeded Charlotte Hornets and the ninth-seeded Indiana Pacers. That’s not even counting three other competitive East teams, who could all qualify for the play-in tournament. The Chicago Bulls just acquired All-Star Nikola Vucevic (or “Vucci Mane,” a nickname I will fiercely defend as the NBA’s best). The Toronto Raptors have the talent and pedigree to make a run at any moment, and even the Washington Wizards have a shot behind Russell Westbrook’s recent hot streak of triple-doubles.
In the West, the ruling class of the playoff seeding goes all the way to No. 6 before there is a slight drop-off. Even in a throng of teams one could expect to be playoff locks, there are cracks in the facade. The Los Angeles Lakers could experience a standings free fall while LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain injured. Portland’s grip on the sixth seed could loosen in the face of its atrocious defense. Beyond the sixth seed, there are plenty of teams that should look to remain in the scuffle until the bitter end. Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, coach Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, the list goes on and on.
My point being, the play-in has made playoff basketball more than feasible for a number of teams. Twenty teams will play meaningful, do-or-die basketball in May. It’s the exact wrinkle we needed to counteract the weirdness of a season shortened by COVID-19. It means the number of teams waving the white flag and opting to tank is incredibly small, amounting to only three or so per conference. It will make this final stretch of the season as entertaining, if not more so, than the playoffs themselves. The NBA continues to innovate and push boundaries, and I really hope they keep this development in the long term. Let the chaos begin.