It is hardly remarkable that most people connected to the National Basketball Association think the play-in thingy is a grand idea without having seen it in action because, well, that’s what you do, right? Take a postseason system that already doesn’t have enough excellence and invite more mediocrity to it, while passing it off as “good for the fans.” And more specifically, for their money-distribution systems.
But here we are, prepping for the adrenalized world of do-or-get-sick-and-then-maybe-die basketball. Take as an example the case of Stephen Curry, who has been hailed as the fellow who saved the sport this year while nearly every other big name was being injured or load managed, and did so at a rate he had never achieved before when he was surrounded by better players. He—well, he and the rest of the Golden State Warriors—bring us a showdown with LeBron James—well, he and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers. While it is true that Anthony Davis and Draymond Green and Dennis Schröder and Andrew Wiggins (yes, Andrew Wiggins) are also contributors of considerable value, the marquee is two names large.
But one of them will lose Wednesday and will have to play either the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs Friday for the right to play at Utah at a time the NBA has not yet deemed worthy of release, presumably because they want us to live in a play-in world until the play-in is played out.
And it might be as soon as Friday if either Curry or James lose twice. The league had never envisioned losing the Lakers early as a play-in consequence, and it certainly hadn’t planned for Curry’s extraordinary season to hang on a razor’s edge any more than it wanted Zion Williamson to make no dent at all. Nobody will like the play-in much if either of them go two-and-out, or advance and get dropped in the first round, as is typically the case with seven- and eight-seeds (each is 5-36 against their betters).
Still, Curry-James is the big deal, because the other alternatives are, well, what you would expect of your mid-table teams. Charlotte and Indiana will simply be unwatchable on their face, while freefalling Boston and perpetually confusing Washington will be the 7-8 showdown you never thought you needed. As for Memphis and San Antonio, the Grizz are big and kind of slow-ish and hard to endure when they’re not getting to the rim and the Spurs have lost 10 of their last 12 and whose best feature is Gregg Popovich-disguised-as-the-main-street-in-Deadwood.
In short, Curry better be Curry and James better be healthy, otherwise this could be a brief and painful interlude that most of the folks who love the idea now will come to call tedious, because the concept of more games never goes away; the last time the playoff format allowed for fewer teams predates the 24-second shot clock, for God’s sake.
This is all part of Adam Silver’s twin mandates: more gate receipts for owners under the Keep Billionaires From Revolting plan, and to make the postseason more like the soccer model, only without promotion and relegation. In that system (we’ll use the Brits as an example), there is no playoff in the Premiership and the bottom three teams are sent down a league to be replaced by the top two finishers in that next tier, confusingly named the Championship, and a third team to emerge from a four-team tournament between the third and sixth seeds (HEY, THEY’RE PLAYING THE TOURNAMENT TODAY!). There, it isn’t the 13th through 20th teams involved, but the 23rd through 26th, proving that we seem to like even teams we would never imagine caring about under normal circumstances. In other words, San Antonio is Bournemouth, Boston is Brentford, and Golden State is Barnsley, which coincidentally has A’s baseball supremo Billy Beane as a part owner.
Confused? Of course you are, but you’ll get used to it because this concept is only going to expand. The regular season will never shrink, the pre-playoff will expand, and before long we’ll have a 16-team tournament to figure who the eighth seeds are because Sacramento’s 15-year playoff drought is considered an intolerable marketing outrage by … well, by Comrade Redford, mostly.
But the play-in’s success will be determined in the short run by whether Curry and James both advance because, after all, the NBA sells stars, not shirts, although you can get the shirts in the lobby at the properly extortionate fee. Curry is the man who saved basketball, James is the one who will be credited with saving basketball if the Lakers slalom through all the smaller markets in the West, and the league will eagerly await the return of those 150 regular-season games and the further downward expansion of the postseason. After all, it’s OK in the snobby label-shop world of NBA fandom for the Wizards to get a meaningful game here or there, but not so much that you’d ever want them to have several.