The NBA Still Hasn’t Fixed the Simple Issue That Tanks the Play-In Tournament’s Legitimacy
Whether you like it or not, the NBA Play-In Tournament is now an established part of the sport’s postseason landscape. Gone are the days of eight teams per conference qualifying for the playoffs and that being the end of the story; now, 20 clubs have a shot of making it to the metaphorical promised land.
By and large, the Association has worked out the kinks. Players, fans, and broadcasters alike know who will qualify for the Play-In Tournament, how the miniature bracket will progress, and what it all means for the larger playoff picture. There is, however, still one lingering issue: the stats.
While numbers are a fundamental part of sports, the Association has dropped the ball during the NBA Play-In Tournament. The points, rebounds, assists, and everything else that happens during those games, from a historical perspective, might as well not happen.
And that’s a problem.
The stats from the NBA Play-In Tournament don’t exist as part of a larger context
During the 2019-20 NBA season, the play-in tournament first emerged as a way to salvage a COVID-interrupted campaign. Since then, the league has made that extra round of games a part of its regularly scheduled programming. The stats from the tournament, however, still pose something of an issue.
At first, the numbers from the NBA Play-In Tournament existed in something of a grey area. They weren’t counted as regular season games, but the numbers from those contests weren’t considered postseason stats, either. While it was initially easy to write off as an unintended consequence of unprecedented circumstances — no matter how much contingency planning was done, the Association could be excused for missing a few details when organizing a postseason bubble — things haven’t progressed.
To this day, that problem persists. Everyone knows that the tournament takes place. The NBA and broadcasters alike promote it. Fans tune in to watch the action. The players take the court to fight for a place in the postseason proper. But, when everything is said and done, the stats that shape the course of those games don’t go anywhere.
They remain as individual box scores, sitting in a metaphorical milk crate in the corner rather than being properly filed as part of a larger context.
Stats may seem like a minor issue, but they play a key part in legitimizing a new addition to the calendar
Depending on your perspective, stats can seem either incredibly important or incredibly boring. And while it’s easy for the latter camp to write off the NBA Play-In Tournament numbers — they’re one a few games per season, and not every player takes part — I would assert that even that small gap in the record is significant.
Put it this way, whenever a change takes place, everyone needs to accept its legitimacy.
The NBA Play-In Tournament, by and large, has become a part of the league landscape without too many objections, but it’s still viewed in some circles as a bit of a gimmick or something less than the main event. While that’s largely understandable, it does bring us back to the stats.
Part of the reason why the tournament is viewed as a precursor to the proper postseason is because the NBA hasn’t lumped it in with the rest of the playoffs. Could that be a conscious branding decision? Sure, but the statistical side of things underscores that these games, while they may be significant, don’t matter in the same way as what’s to come. And, from a marketing perspective, that tagline doesn’t exactly inspire consumers.
And then, on a larger level, there’s also the issue of statistical integrity. As much as GOAT debates or similar conversations can be silly, think about how those sort of discussions play out. At some point, you’re going to cite the statistics. But what happens when some games are missing from the record?
Furthermore, performances in big moments are often used as a deciding factor when establishing a player’s greatness. Wouldn’t stepping up in the Play-In Tournament and propelling an underdog into the postseason proper count as a clutch performance? You would think so, but again those stats don’t get sorted into either the playoff records or the regular season. They, in essence, don’t matter from a historical perspective.
To the NBA’s credit, the league is usually pretty good with these sorts of situations. The official website has plenty of usable data — there was a time when I wrote an article about how advanced stats sites were necessary in hockey because NHL.com was essentially nonsense from a statistical perspective — and has tools that allow you to push beyond the box scores. That data is also scrapable — again, that’s not a given — which helps facilitate all sorts of stats and data visualizations around the internet. And, from a less inside-baseball perspective, the NBA is also generally progressive when it comes to things like sharing highlights and allowing clips to exist on social media.
That all suggests that the Association knows the value of making things both functional and acceptable. NBA Play-In Tournament stats, however, remain a notable exception. And if we’re supposed to take these extra games seriously and place them alongside the rest of the postseasons, that needs to change ASAP.