NBA play-in tournament explained: What to know about league’s playoff format change, and why it’s so important

by Ryan

The final day of the 2020-21 NBA regular season is finally upon us, which means that the start of the NBA’s play-in tournament is just a couple of days away as the first game is set to take place on Tuesday, May 18. We don’t yet know which teams will be playing in the tournament, but all of that will be determined by the end of Sunday, which will feature all 30 teams in action. 

This is the second time that the league has used the play-in tournament, with the first being in the bubble in Orlando last season, and, to the surprise of no one, it continues to be a hot topic with players and coaches across the league. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was critical of the league’s decision to implement the play-in tournament for this season, despite the format being considered a success inside the Disney Bubble. 

“Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” LeBron said of the play-in format. 

These comments echoed what we’d previously heard from Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who took aim at the NBA‘s format change for the playoffs this season. 

“I don’t understand the idea of the play-in [tournament],” Doncic said. “You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point of that.” 

While some of the league’s stars are clearly not on board with the change in format, we won’t be getting into any of the arguments against the play-in tournament here. Instead, let’s take a closer look at just what exactly this tournament is, how it works and why it’s so important.

What is the play-in tournament?

The play-in tournament is a new — and hopefully exciting — way for the league to determine the eight playoff teams from each conference. A version of the idea was implemented last summer during the restart in the bubble, but this season will be the first time the full play-in tournament is in use. 

It could also be the last. As it stands, the idea was only approved by the league’s Board of Governors for this season. Assuming there are no major problems it will likely remain in place moving forward, but that is not a guarantee as of now.  

How does the play-in tournament work?

Before the implementation of the play-in tournament, the top eight seeds in each conference would make the playoffs when the regular season ended. That’s not the case anymore. Now, only the top six seeds in each conference are guaranteed a trip to the postseason.

The teams that finish seventh and eighth will join the teams that finish ninth and 10th in a four-team play-in tournament to determine the final two playoff spots. Here’s how the format works:

  • The seventh-place team will host the eighth-place team in a one-game matchup. The winner of that game will earn the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. 
  • The ninth-place team will host the 10th-place team in a one-game matchup. The loser of that game is eliminated. 
  • The loser of the seventh place vs. eighth place game will host the winner of the ninth place vs. 10th place game in a one-game matchup. The winner of that game will earn the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, and the loser of that game will be eliminated. 
  • From that point, the playoffs will proceed as usual.

When is the play-in tournament?

The play-in tournament will take place following the conclusion of the regular season, and will run from May 18-21. The playoffs will begin on May 22. 

Which teams could be involved?

Obviously this is fluid to some extent, so things could change in the final few weeks of the regular season, but here’s a look at where things stand at this point.

Eastern Conference

The top three seeds in the East have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. 

The next group of teams in the East is all jumbled together, and just four games separate fourth from 10th. With a few strong weeks, any of these teams could establish itself as a top-six team and avoid the play-in tournament. At the same time, it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them continued to sputter and wound up needing to win some extra games to get into the postseason.

The Bulls are currently in 10th place, but are 5.5 games out of sixth, so while they could easily move up in the standings, it’s very hard to imagine them avoiding the play-in. Likewise for the rest of the teams behind them in this group. The bottom of the East is a mess, and it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen here.

See ya next year.

Western Conference

The Jazz and Suns have been the two best teams in the West this season, while the Clippers have come on strong over the past few weeks. These three are all safe.

These two teams would definitely be safe under normal circumstances, but injuries have made things a bit iffy. The Nuggets just lost Jamal Murray to a torn ACL, while the Lakers are still without Anthony Davis and LeBron James. They each have a decent cushion above seventh place, and should be OK, but they have some business to take care of over the next few weeks.

Assuming the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Nuggets and Lakers all secure the top five spots in the West, there will only be one guaranteed playoff spot remaining. It looks like that battle will come down to the Blazers, who currently sit in sixth, and Mavericks, who are 1.5 games behind in seventh. 

The Grizzlies are three games back of sixth place, so perhaps they have an argument that they’re still in that race. It’s hard to imagine them jumping both the Blazers and Mavericks, however, so we’ll put them in this group. which features four teams fighting for three spots. 

Three games separate the Grizzlies in eighth from the Pelicans in 11th, so it’s going to be a wild few weeks to see who ends up sneaking into the play-in tournament at the bottom of the West. One thing’s for sure, no one is going to want to play the Pelicans if they can get into the postseason.

The Kings were right in the mix for the play-in tournament until earlier this month, when they began a current seven-game losing streak. They’re now four games behind the Warriors for 10th in the West, so technically they aren’t out of it yet, but the recent signs are not good.

See ya next year. 

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