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NBA likes extra buzz created by return of play-in tournament

By John Lombardo

The NBA’s play-in tournament returns this week on Tuesday as a prelude to the playoffs, with league executives bullish on the second edition of the 7-10 seed format designed to add intrigue to the last month of the 82-game regular season.

Last year, with a month remaining in the 2020-21 season, the league had a then-record 24 teams in contention for the playoffs. This year, 25 teams were in contention during the last month of the regular season. If not for the play-in tournament, there would have been 19 teams in contention, according to Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics who has led the league’s effort in creating the play-in format.

“The biggest learning is just how much more of an outsized impact this would have than we envisioned,” Wasch said. “The level of buzz and competition and the condensing of the standings of both conferences has created a lot of compelling content.”

Wasch said that NBA viewership of games historically have dipped during the last month of the regular season. This season, viewership across nationally televised games increased by 10% in February and March compared to January, and by 12% in February/March/April compared to January.

How it works

NBA Play-In Tournament
April 12-15
■ Teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages in each conference will each have two opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot. The teams with the ninth-highest and 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference will each have to win two consecutive games to earn a playoff spot.
■ At the conclusion of the regular season but before the first round of the playoffs, the team with the seventh-highest winning percentage in each conference will host the team with the eighth-highest winning percentage in a play-in game (the “seven-eight game”). The winner of the seven-eight game in each conference will earn the No. 7 seed.
■ The team with the ninth-highest winning percentage in each conference will host the team with the 10th-highest winning percentage in the “nine-ten game.” The loser of the seven-eight game will host the winner of the nine-ten game in a play-in game, and the winner of that game in each conference will earn the No. 8 seed.
■ The winners of the play-in tournament will receive the seventh and eighth-seeded positions in each conference. Following the play-in tournament, the NBA playoffs will begin with the traditional 16-team, best-of-seven series structure.
Source: NBA.com

The league did not tweak the format of this year’s play-in tournament from last season, so once again teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages in each conference have two opportunities to win one game to make the playoffs. The teams with the ninth-highest and 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference each will have to win two consecutive play-in games to earn a playoff berth (see chart).

The winners of the play-in tournament determine the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference, and following the play-in tournament that runs from Tuesday through Friday, the NBA playoffs will begin with its traditional 16-team, best–of-seven series format on Saturday, April 16.

Like last season, NBA owners approved the current play-in format only for this year. Despite some criticism that the format could have unintended consequences for a 7-seed team to get eliminated by a 10-seed team, it is expected that the play-in will continue pending approval.

“Our view is that it is working incredibly well,” Wasch said, adding that it will be up to the NBA’s board of governors to approve the play-in for future seasons. “We will want to push forward with the current format.”

While fans still may be getting used to the play-in format, the tournament is familiar to league executives like Wasch, given that it was years in the making before being adopted last season.

“I’ve been with the NBA coming up on 11 years, so it’s a concept that predates me,” Wasch said of the play-in tournament. “The concept was always floating around as a way to create enhanced competition leading into the playoffs. We’ve always looked at it as a way to create more tiers in the standings, and tiers drive competition.”

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