Doncic said he didn’t see the point of the expanded postseason format because the Mavericks, who are currently the Western Conference’s seventh seed with a 30-26 record, could “lose two in a row and you’re out” after playing 72 games to earn a spot in the playoffs. Cuban then told ESPN.com that the new format was an “enormous mistake” because it “doubles the stress of the compressed schedule” and prevents Dallas from resting its players in advance of the postseason.
These arguments were predictable, and it’s no surprise the Mavericks were the first to make them publicly. They have the most to lose under the new format, which calls for the seventh through 10th seeds in each conference to face off in play-in games that will determine the final two playoff spots. Dallas would be cruising into the postseason with a two-game cushion over the ninth seed if there were no play-in round, but now it must decide whether it wants to gun for the sixth seed to secure a guaranteed playoff spot. With so many star players sidelined around the league, Cuban’s concerns about injuries and wear-and-tear are hard to dispute.
Defenders of the play-in proposal have several possible counters but none more compelling than Stephen Curry’s outrageously entertaining play of late. The Golden State Warriors’ two-time MVP has been on a tear, averaging 39.9 points and shooting 49.2 percent on three-pointers in April while topping 40 points in four of his past seven games, including a season-high 53 points April 12 in a win over the Denver Nuggets. Despite rolling his ankle in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday, Curry tossed in an impossible left-handed three-pointer and danced around defenders en route to 47 points.
“I’m still in awe of the shot-making,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “[Curry is] a man at the peak of his powers with a lifetime of training and work, not just on his body but on his mind. This is a guy who is functioning at a level that very few human beings have ever functioned at in their particular field. It’s just beautiful to watch.”
This late-season push has Curry closing fast on Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal for the scoring title, and his season averages of 31 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists are nearly identical to the stat line that earned him unanimous MVP honors in 2016. More importantly, Curry has lifted Golden State, which has won five of its past six games, to a 29-29 record and the ninth seed. Barring a collapse or an unexpected winning streak from the inconsistent New Orleans Pelicans, the Warriors now appear destined for a play-in spot.
In the wake of Klay Thompson’s season-ending knee injury, Golden State has struggled to process its post-dynasty life and to weigh the relative importance of maximizing Curry’s prime against longer-term priorities such as developing center James Wiseman. It’s no coincidence that Curry has upped his game since Wiseman, the second pick in the 2020 draft, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Indeed, Wiseman’s absence has clarified Golden State’s short-term goals and surrounded Curry with more experienced players and more effective lineups.
The play-in round looms as a nice carrot for Curry and the Warriors, even if forward Draymond Green said this month that “fighting for a play-in spot doesn’t motivate me” at this stage of his career. Without the play-in, the Warriors, who are a game back of eighth seed Memphis, might be more tempted to shut down their veteran players or aggressively manage minutes in preparation for the draft lottery and next season. With the play-in, Golden State will be one of the top teams to watch over the next month and Curry should emerge as a grim reaper, the type of seasoned big-game player whom teams such as the Mavericks would dread facing in a one-and-done format.
That added intrigue counts as a win for the NBA at a time when the league desperately needs one. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, LaMelo Ball, Jamal Murray and Thompson are among the high-profile players to suffer significant injuries or miss large amounts of time this season, a state of affairs that has hampered the television product. The Warriors remain one of the league’s biggest TV draws and most popular teams — ranking third in merchandise sales through the first half of the season — because Curry is a dependable magnet for die-hards and casual fans alike.
Of course, there are other play-in wrinkles worth monitoring. The Eastern Conference standings are a jumbled mess, with tight races surrounding both the coveted sixth seed and the final 10th spot. The play-in offered a short-term incentive for teams such as the Wizards and Chicago Bulls to avoid sell-offs at the trade deadline, and its presence eased anxiety for Lakers fans when James and Davis were sidelined with meaningful injuries. The defending champions were bound to slide without their stars, but they didn’t need to worry about cratering into the lottery.
It’s not clear whether the play-in round will return once the NBA’s calendar gets back on track next season. What is clear, though, is that the league needs as much buzz and intrigue as possible as it welcomes fans back to arenas and attempts to rebuild its television audiences. On those existential terms, Doncic vs. Curry in a do-or-die play-in game would be pretty dreamy, even if it sounds like Cuban’s worst nightmare.