The past weeks of the 2020-2021 NBA Season have been pretty intense. Some of it is due to the hangover from the trade deadline, where teams such as the Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat have become revitalized squads after some midseason acquisitions. Part of it is also due to the potentially disruptive play-in round for this season’s playoffs.
In what was unanimously approved by the NBA Board of Governors on a one-year trial basis, the NBA will implement a new format for the 2021 postseason, where the seventh to 10th seeds would take part in a winner-take-all play-in round. Unlike in the Orlando bubble, where the ninth seed had to be within four games of the eighth seed, there are no requirements for the play-in round. The video below provides more details on this new format.
The events leading to the current play-in system can be traced back to the last day of the 2017-2018 regular season, when the Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves played their regular season finale, which coincidentally would hand the winner the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Timberwolves, who at that time had the longest playoff drought in the league, won a 112-106 overtime thriller behind the 31 points of Jimmy Butler and the 26 points and 14 rebounds of Karl Anthony-Towns. It was also the first final-day play-in for more than 20 years, a far cry from the load management that pervaded the league in recent years and made season finales passé.
Although it didn’t mean much to Minnesota’s postseason (they lost to the overall top seed Houston Rockets in five games), it set off a chain of events that changed the NBA postseason arguably for the better.
The 2020 NBA Playoffs was the first postseason where the play-in system was implemented. Twenty-two teams (nine from the Eastern Conference and 13 from the Western Conference) participated in the seeding games held in the Orlando bubble, with the final spot in both conferences to be decided through a play-in that would be done should the ninth seed finish within four games of the eighth seed.
The enhanced format immediately reaped benefits as the Portland Trail Blazers overcame a 3.5 game deficit to take the eighth seed from the Memphis Grizzlies and pulled off one of the more exciting runs in the bubble.
It also worked in the top seeds’ favor as both the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers dispatched the Blazers in five games, with seeding games MVP Damian Lillard’s knee injury in Game 4 effectively ending his season and Portland’s hopes.
With the new format in place, qualifying for the playoffs goes beyond just the wins themselves; seeding implications now matter all the more. Risk-averse teams would naturally avoid being within the seventh seed because it would only add fatigue heading into the postseason and they could fall into a play-in matchup that would end up being unfavorable for them.
Teams in the running for the ninth and tenth would normally look towards preparing for the draft, but this new format now gives them a cause for pause. Fringe playoff teams that feel they are a few pieces away from contending for a championship now see themselves in a win-win situation considering that they can have a foot in the door of the playoffs while still retaining a shot at a decent lottery pick.
It may be too early to tell, but the longer the lower seeds need to go through may provide an unintended advantage for the top two seeds of both conferences. This bodes well especially for older or injury-prone squads that are looking to rest their players before the postseason begins. Whoever ends up in either the seventh or eighth seed now has a higher hill to climb considering they will play more games and on shorter rest.
Currently, these are how the standings for both conferences look like:
Things remain close as only a handful of games separate certain teams from being fringe playoff teams and missing out on the postseason entirely. With a little less than 20 games left for most teams in the regular season, the margin of error for many of the squads still in the running for at least the play-in continues to get smaller.
Out west, the Lakers can potentially fall to the seventh seed and this could pose problems for them considering their stars have either significantly long regular and postseason mileage under their belt (LeBron James) or are injury-prone (Anthony Davis). Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks remain within striking distance of Portland and have one of the lightest schedules for the rest of the season (the Trail Blazers have the third toughest as of this writing).
The race for the last two slots in the Eastern Conference Playoffs is much tighter as the fourth and ninth seeds are all within less than a handful of games of one another. The New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers may be the ninth and 10th seeds, respectively, at the moment, but their fortunes could change quickly, especially as the former has the fifth toughest schedule and the latter has among the easier matchups left.
The game of basketball continues to evolve and the NBA has made initiatives to innovate and add excitement to the game. This new postseason format introduced by the NBA for the 2021 playoffs has not only generated more buzz among the fans, but it has also made some games that otherwise would have been rest days for stars matter.
The play-in tournament also gives teams that have always been fringe playoff contenders a legitimate shot of making the postseason, especially if they get a favorable matchup during the play-in rounds. While its future beyond 2021 is uncertain, it does provide the spark that could set us up for another fantastic finish to the season.