The idea of a play-in tournament for the NBA’s last few playoff seeds has been floating around for a while, with something along those lines repeatedly advocated by Bill Simmons dating back to 2007, but it seems it’s now gaining some traction with general managers and league executives. ESPN’s Zach Lowe has a report discussing the “behind-the-scenes momentum” for the idea, with two specific proposals circulating at high levels with teams and the NBA office.
Here’s more from that piece:
The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot.
The implementation of a play-in tournament is not imminent. It falls behind the one-and-done rule and perhaps reseeding the playoffs 1-16 regardless of conference in the current reform pecking order. (It could go hand-in-hand with that change, only with one play-in tournament instead of separate brackets for each conference.)
It is not coming next season, and it would be a shock if the NBA adopted it in time for 2020 or even 2021. It may never happen. Any such change would need approval from the competition committee, and then from a supermajority of 23 NBA teams. That process has not even started.
…Other top executives, including at least one prominent general manager, have pushed a simpler, shorter alternative: No. 7 hosts No. 10 in a winner-take-all for the No. 7 seed, and No. 8 hosts No. 9 in a winner-take-all for the No. 8 seed, per league sources. That approach appears too radical to gain widespread approval.
This is certainly an interesting idea on a number of levels, and one with widespread implications for many facets of the NBA. Perhaps a particularly important one to consider is TV. This would lead to the creation of four (under the more radical proposal) to six (under the most-discussed proposal) play-in games that would presumably be nationally-televised, and those would likely draw significant ratings.
However, adding extra games could receive significant opposition from the players’ union, especially considering that there’s already been lots of discussion about NBA injuries, the length of the season, and the importance of rest. That could possibly be mitigated by reducing the regular season, which Lowe says could be considered, but that carries challenges too:
In theory, revenue from a play-in tournament — or a midseason tournament — could ease the league toward slashing a few games from the 82-game schedule, but it is unclear any such tournament would rake in sufficient cash.
Right. And that’s particularly clear when you look at the numbers. At most, this creates six extra games for the league per year. But shortening the regular season would apply to all 30 teams, so even if you only take it down from 82 to 81 games per team, that’s a loss of 15 regular-season games across the NBA each season (as each game involves two teams). If you shorten it to 80 games, that’s 30 less regular-season games per year. So this could be a net drop of nine to 26 games per season league-wide (depending on which playoff proposal is accepted and how much the season is shortened by), and those games all come with broadcast revenue, ticket revenue, concession revenue and so on.
While a play-in tournament would certainly bring in some money, would it create enough revenue to counteract those losses? (And this is where this is a dramatic difference from the creation of the NCAA’s “First Four” play-in games; those were extra games which didn’t shorten the schedule. It must be nice to just be able to do that without having to consider opposition from a players’ union.)
And things on the TV side could get interesting if the NBA tries to shorten its regular season to make this work. The league has national deals with ESPN and Turner, but each club has their own local deals. The games to be removed might presumably come mostly from the local pile, but that involves a whole lot of different networks and different contracts. If they come from the national pile, that carries its own challenges. And while this could create some extra TV revenue for the league, with the national networks perhaps paying even more for NBA rights that include these play-in games, it’s not clear that the revenue there would make up for the lost regular-season games.
But there could be other gains for broadcasters. Changing the playoff format so that 20 of the 30 teams would now participate in at least a play-in game (as opposed to the 16 of 30 that currently participate in the playoffs) is big, as that means more teams would be in the hunt for at least a play-in game. That leads to fewer regular-season basketball games that don’t impact the postseason picture at all, and that could create higher ratings, especially for the local broadcasters. (Most nationally-shown games have playoff implications for at least one team.)
At the moment, this would lead to teams like the Knicks (11th in the East, one back of the Hornets for 10th, but seven wins back of the eighth-place Heat) being much closer to the playoffs. Thus, they would probably draw higher local ratings, and that’s good for broadcasters. This is a less definable and less predictable effect, though, so it wouldn’t necessarily lead to teams being able to extract more money from their local deals. But more local broadcasters would benefit each year with an expanded playoff, and each team would also benefit from extra ticket sales and
There are further potential benefits for the league from doing this. For one, it might help lower the impetus to completely tank, as teams in the bottom half of the league would have a better shot at at least getting the 10th spot and possibly making a playoff run. And that’s especially true if the draft lottery is also adjusted to include the seventh and eight teams in each conference, which Lowe mentions is under discussion as well.
Yes, the odds of the top pick are still better if you absolutely tank, but doing enough to at least compete for those play-in slots while you build might be more appealing under this system. And that carries possible benefits for teams in the broadcasting and in-game departments, as contending for at least a play-in berth seems likely to draw better ratings and more ticket sales than being a clear non-playoff team.
There are a whole lot of hurdles for this to clear before it becomes reality, and as Lowe mentions, it might never happen. But it’s a notable idea, and it’s definitely interesting that NBA executives are seriously discussing it. You can bet that there will be a lot of projections run on if this could be a good thing for the league overall and if the pros will actually outweigh the cons, and that’s going to take a fair bit of time. But those conversations are now happening, and the idea of a play-in tournament is becoming more real.