When LeBron James talks, it resonates in every direction. This came into play Sunday night when James blasted the idea of the NBA’s play-in tournaments. This season, the No. 7 through No. 10 finishers in each conference will play a three-game tournament to decide the final two playoff berths in the East and West.
A play-in event isn’t a new idea. Getting more eyeballs on the NBA late in the season, when the playoffs are already out of reach for many teams, fueled the play-in tournament idea. The NBA played around with it a bit in last year’s bubble restart in Orlando and expanded it for this season.
LeBron James liked the idea until he didn’t
In March 2020, LeBron James joined former Cleveland Cavaliers teammates Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye on the duo’s Road Trippin’ podcast. At that point, James was supporting a plan for the NBA’s eventual restart that would involve teams playing each other to grab the last playoff berths.
“One thing you can’t just do is go straight to the playoffs because it discredits the 60-plus games that guys had fighting for that position,” James said in 2020. “You got Portland. You got Memphis … New Orleans, and Sacramento tinkering around there … so if there’s five or 10 games left … why not let those guys battle it out? Make them play each other all five games.”
But after James’ Los Angeles Lakers lost at home to the Toronto Raptors Sunday night, the superstar was singing a different tune, according to Bill Oram of The Athletic.
“Whoever came up with that sh*t needs to be fired,” James said. The loss put the Lakers into a sixth-place tie with the Portland Trail Blazers, right on the dividing line between a playoff berth and play-in limbo.
Entering play Thursday night, LA is 37–28, tied with the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas owns the tiebreaker advantage, per NBA.com, and is in the fifth spot. The Lakers are sixth, with Portland a half-game back in seventh. Further back, the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors are in a tight battle for eighth place, separated by a half-game. The San Antonio Spurs lead the New Orleans Pelicans by 1½ games for the 10th spot.
NBA executive begs to differ with LeBron James
Evan Wasch is the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics (a problematic fit on a business card). He told Ben Golliver of The Washington Post there was more upside than downside for the play-in concept.
“Obviously, we welcome feedback from our players and teams,” Wasch said. “But, on balance, we believe the play-in tournament offers more benefits than downsides.”
Specifically, those benefits have come in the form of increased fan interest in the latter part of the regular season. Television ratings in April shot up from the previous month by 25 percent. Teams like the Warriors, Lakers, Trail Blazers, and Mavericks — all with popular superstars — are in the play-in mix. That makes more games take on added importance in the standings.
So instead of deciding to rest their stars down the stretch, more teams are choosing to remain competitive. The best example of this is the Washington Wizards, 17–32 at their low-water mark after an April 5 loss to the Raptors in Tampa. They were 13th in the Eastern Conference, 3½ games behind the 10th-place Chicago Bulls. Fast forward a month. Washington is 13–4 since the loss to Toronto and has climbed to 10th place. The Wizards lead the Raptors by three games for the last play-in spot.
LeBron James did what almost everyone does
In March 2020, the idea of a play-in tournament was for LeBron James an abstract idea with which his Lakers wouldn’t be concerned. But in May 2021, the prospect of the play-in event is a genuine concept for James, and one that he’s finds unappealing. Who would want to stake their championship defense on a potential winner-take-all game to make the playoffs?
The play-in will work like this: The No. 8 team visits the No. 7 finishers, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in their conference. Meanwhile, the 10th-place clubs travel to play the 9th-place squads. The loser goes home. The winner advances to visit the 7–8 game loser with the No. 8 seed on the line. The play-in runs from May 18–21, with the NBA Playoffs opening May 22.
It’s easy to make LeBron James a target; he has a lot to say about various subjects. But in this case, the only thing he’s guilty of is having the same sort of wiring everyone else does. Abstracts are always easier to imagine than staring down cold, hard reality.
Schedule and past standings information courtesy Basketball Reference.