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The NBA Got The Play-In Tournament It Deserves

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

If the National Basketball Association and its associated minions really wanted us to desire the play-in games tonight and tomorrow, it would have found a way to either make the Los Angeles Lakers two games better or the Brooklyn Nets eight games worse. And if that seems too daunting, to make either the Charlotte Hornets or Atlanta Hawks seven games worse.

After all, the play-in game is designed either consciously or inadvertently to offer new lifelines to allegedly popular teams that they think will draw more attention. You know, like the Lakers, Nets, or New York Knicks. Teams you know actively instigate cataracts but still will inspire more prose than the Hornets, Hawks, or New Orleans Pelicans.

Marketing people will recognize this particular tactic from their college studies as "shame-deficient pandering," but that's what passes for thinking in the basketball world. Big names without games are always considered more desirable. This is often backward thinking, but nobody ever got fired repeating the same old tired tropes to their superiors, who got to where they are by repeating the same old tired tropes to their superiors.

True, the Lakers have created more entertainment by being a fetid heap oily rags set alight near a paint factory, but the need for LeBron content could also have been served by having them finish 10th and then being humiliated one final time by either New Orleans or San Antonio. And true, the Nets have managed to undermine Kevin Durant through a series of me-first moves by me-first mates that somehow left them outside the top six while STILL being considered the Eastern Conference betting favorite by some books. And true, the Knicks have the same chemistry issues with far few chemicals.

But the play-in games don't really work as an Adam Silver-approved concept unless they're all in or all out, and the Nets are the only ones who showed enough gumption not to lose sixty percent of their games. They might officially be a recent phenomenon historically, but Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the now-departed James Harden made them a tedious national talking point, which frankly is exactly the redundancy it reads like. This speaks volumes of Durant and the erratic talents of Irving, but it also makes them a considerably more detestable watch than they were a year ago. They certainly promised much and delivered meh, keeping the distance in New York's affection between them and the revolting Knicks at chasm level. The Nets are that genuine rarity, a daily national staple whose locals would rather watch the New York Rangers. One suspects that this speaks volumes about the intellectual bankruptcy of the national media that the draggy monochrome Nets are still considered an important narrative, but it isn't like it would have covered the league any differently. There are cares and care-nots, and they are largely determined by market size.

Thus, the play-in tournament is designed as a lifeline to teams like the Lakers, who are so repellent that they might not be able to use it for the next five years, and to the Knicks, who have been this thing for almost the entire century. It is likely to serve instead as a momentary showcase for young but healing sides like Minnesota, Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans and yes, even San Antonio, so if you like new people doing new things on a new stage, this could be a nice little diversion. It can even service teams with injured stars who escaped the play-in and have more time to heal them (yes, that's you, Golden State).

It's just that this is one more example of the law of unintended consequences. The league has wed itself over the years to a strategy that is heavy on a few old favorites and dismissive of intriguing newcomers until forced to be otherwise. That is known as the Warriors Conundrum, after the long irrelevant team (one playoff appearance over 18 years between 1994 and 2012) that became the most entertaining team of the past decade and helped sparks a ratings and attention renaissance that has since dissipated. Nobody wants to bet on who might be the next Warriors because the odds are too long, so the need for old favorites remains high in the league office. The league hates new until it is proven to generate consistent attention, and only got the Nets, a triumph of hot-take hype without substance, whose biggest moment in the post-Julius Erving era was Durant's too-long toe.

It isn't so much that the play-in a bad idea per se, as it meets the league's need for more inventory at a time when everything about it screams for less. It also gave you your first extended look at Memphis and Ja Morant, if that's your idea of fun (and it should be). Based on what it was really designed to do, which was help old dowager teams either fallen on hard times (LA) or defining them by their very existence (New York), it failed as a lifeline because it granted that lifeline to two teams locked into their own cultural failure and unable to use it. And the one that did use it is a team way too many people outside the raving-lunatics-for-effect talk show diaspora would prefer not to see because it is a ziggurat of malformation trying to overcome the indisputable virtues of Kevin Durant.
Sounds like fun, if you're then kind of person whom everyone else at the bar moves away from when you sit down.

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