Beset by a troublesome ankle and forced to cope with the Los Angeles Lakers’ increasingly complicated title path, LeBron James added his voice to a chorus of NBA figures who are frustrated by the league’s new postseason format, which has expanded from 16 to 20 teams by adding a play-in tournament.
“Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired,” James said, with the Lakers in danger of falling into the Western Conference’s seventh seed and needing to survive the play-in tournament, which will feature the seventh through 10th seeds in each conference.
The four-time MVP might be looking for a head to roll, but it goes without saying that it took more than one person to conceive, approve and implement the play-in tournament, which will be held from May 18 to 21. The concept has been bouncing around the league office since at least 2009, and the Board of Governors unanimously approved of this season’s format, including the new postseason approach, last fall.
Even so, the designated “play-in guy” at the league office would be Evan Wasch, whose formal title is executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics and whose previous projects have included the introduction of target scoring to the All-Star Game. Wasch made it clear he doesn’t seek credit for the new proposal’s recent successes, and he took the high road when presented with James’s criticisms.
“Obviously, we welcome feedback from our players and teams,” Wasch said Tuesday by text message. “But, on balance, we believe the play-in tournament offers more benefits than downsides.”
Despite James’s complaints, which echoed previous comments by Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and owner Mark Cuban, the play-in has indeed had its share of wins. In a virtual interview Friday, Wasch noted the league’s national television ratings were up 25 percent in April compared with March, in large part because of intrigue surrounding play-in teams like the Golden State Warriors.
By opening more postseason spots and by adding new incentives at various tiers in the standings, the format has created heated races for virtually every seed in both conferences. Rather than shut down Stephen Curry as they might in a normal year, the Warriors have remained in the mix. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards have rebounded from a terrible start to make a compelling push into the East’s playoff picture. Higher up the board, teams like the Lakers and Mavericks are fighting for seeds on a nightly basis to avoid the play-in games.
“You’ve significantly increased the competitive incentive in a much wider swath of the standings [for teams] to want to move up,” said Wasch, who has worked at the NBA for nearly a decade. “The intent is to give more teams, more markets and more fans the feeling they still have something to play for. On that basis, it’s absolutely been successful.”
Doncic and Cuban argued the new format invalidated a team’s regular season body of work by boiling 72 games down to one or two, but Wasch countered that the increased competition was precisely the point.
“Luka and Mark made the case for the play-in in their criticism of it,” he said. “When you have a play-in . . . you have to treat every game like a playoff game. That’s what we were trying to create. I understand the view, in retrospect, that this was a tough year to put it in given the changes [such as the challenging health protocols and condensed schedule]. The flipside is that our regular season would have been devalued if our teams didn’t have to compete.”
Another key motivation for the play-in system was to provide a cushion for teams that might be adversely impacted by injuries or health protocol absences. For example, if James and star teammate Anthony Davis had missed even more time because of injuries, the play-in could have acted as a safety net if the Lakers slid outside the top eight seeds.
The league’s hope is that the play-in will produce up to six highly competitive showcase games as a lead-in to the postseason. Television ratings tend to spike for Game 7s, and a do-or-die showdown between some combination of James, Curry, Doncic and Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard should attract lots of eyeballs. At the same time, Wasch noted the NBA has seen an increase in blowouts this season because of stars’ absences and a rise in scoring and three-pointers, and the play-in games won’t necessarily be immune to those conditions.
Perhaps the biggest knock on the play-in tournament is it is somewhat difficult to explain. The seventh and eighth seeds in each conference will play head-to-head to claim the seventh seed. The ninth and 10th seeds in each conference will play head-to-head to advance to the second round of the play-in, where the winner will play the loser of the game between the seventh and eighth seeds. The winner of that second-round game will claim the eighth seed.
The NBA’s own explainer video takes 97 seconds to lay out the format, although Wasch defended the structure and quipped the video “had a lot of fluff in it.” The intent of the single/double elimination format was to provide added motivation at every tier: The seventh seed would get home-court advantage in both play-in games, the eighth seed would get home-court advantage in the second play-in game, and the ninth seed would get home-court advantage in its first game.
“There are marginal advantages to each spot between seven and 10. That’s what’s going to drive the intense competition right to the end,” Wasch said. “We thought the benefit of the marginal incentives was worth the slightly added complexity to this format.”
The NBA remains noncommittal about whether the play-in round is here to stay once the league returns to an 82-game schedule next season, but the need for added television revenue and the desire to engage fan bases will surely factor into the decision.
Tweaks could always be made. One concern that has come up is the No. 1 seed in each conference is the last team to find out its playoff opponent, which cuts down on its preparation time. Another possible nightmare scenario looms if a high-profile team like the Lakers is eliminated during the play-in round, cutting down on their ability to draw large television audiences during the actual playoffs.
The Board of Governors will need to vote on the possibility of the play-in round’s return this offseason, and the National Basketball Players Association, individual teams and the television networks will be consulted during the evaluation process. The decision on whether to bring back the play-in in 2021-22 will be made independently from ongoing conversations about whether to shorten the standard 82-game season.
“There’s a general energy for [the play-in tournament within the league office],” Wasch said. “We’re also careful not to get too high or too low. One month of ratings doesn’t prove that this is a winner. . . . [The length of the schedule] is a balance of basketball and economics. In the short term, coming off these two years — [which] have been incredibly challenging not just from a health and safety standpoint but from an economic standpoint as well — I think the view is, let’s get back to our normal course, our 82-game season.”