There are 30 teams in the NBA, 15 in each conference. Traditionally the top eight teams qualify for the playoffs, but changes were made to the structure in 2019. The 2019/20 NBA season saw the league implement the first play-in game for playoff qualification.
The format was as follows: if the team with the eighth-best wins and losses record was more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best record, the original playoffs system would go ahead. However, if the eighth best team in the conference was four games or fewer ahead of the ninth best team, the two teams would compete in a one-off game with the winner securing the final playoff spot.
In the 2019/20 season’s western conference, the eighth placed Portland Trail Blazers had one more win than the ninth placed Memphis Grizzlies, with the resulting play-in game ending in a win for Portland.
For Memphis, the game was their most viewed of the year. For Portland, the game had the most views if you count out games played against the Los Angeles Lakers, the league’s most popular team.
Despite this success, the play-in game was criticised and deemed unfair to the teams below Memphis and Portland. The tenth placed Phoenix Suns had the same record as Memphis (one less win than Portland) and the eleventh placed San Antonio Spurs had two less wins than Memphis and Phoenix, and three less than Portland.
Both Phoenix and San Antonio were denied the opportunity to compete for the final play-off spot, because the initial format was a play-in game and not a play-in tournament. This was corrected the next year.
The current NBA campaign has a new format. At the end of the regular season, the seventh and eighth placed teams will face off for the seventh seed, and the ninth and tenth seeds will play a game. The winner of the nine/ten matchup will face the loser of the seven/eight matchup, and the winner of this match will secure the final playoff spot, the eighth seed.
Frequently Asked Questions: NBA Play-In Tournament
The NBA Play-In Tournament will include teams with the 7th through 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference.
— NBA (@NBA) March 11, 2021
This new structure carries many implications for the NBA. Normally, at this point in the season, teams placed 10th to 15th in the two conferences would have little to play for as they would already be eliminated from playoff contention.
Now, teams are not only battling to get into the play-in tournament, they are also fighting to stay out of it. At the time of writing, only five wins separate the fifth and the tenth seed in the western conference.
Typically races like this are only seen at the top of the NBA standings. The top four seeds in both conferences gain the advantage of playing at their home arenas for the first and final game of the playoff’s first round, if the series goes to seven games.
A parallel exists in football, as the top four teams in the league also benefit with qualification to the Champions League.
However, this kind of suspense has been missing from the bottom of the NBA due to a lack of consequence. In fact, teams are rewarded for having poor seasons. The team with the worst record in the league has the highest odds of obtaining the number one draft pick.
This encourages ‘tanking’, where a team with a poor roster loses games on purpose to boost their odds of landing the number one pick. The Philadelphia 76ers made tanking famous, using the number four pick to draft Joel Embiid, arguably this season’s MVP, and the number one pick to draft Ben Simmons, a three-time all-star in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Parallels to the Premier League
The Premier League’s relegation battle provides a level of excitement that the lower echelon of the NBA could not mimic until now. Notable last day escapes of recent times include Wigan in 2012, West Ham in 2007 and Fulham in 2008.
In addition to the entertainment value, the financial incentive to stay in the league is strong. Last season, Aston Villa were given £106.1 million for surviving the drop. In comparison to the £7.1m that Norwich City were awarded for finishing top of the Championship, the motivation to stay in the Premier League is clear.
For devoted fans of the Premier League, and of European football in general, the combination of a title race and a relegation battle means spectators remain invested in all matches.
The NBA play-in tournament has provided the same feeling, and it looks like it is here to stay.