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The NBA’s Play-In Tournament Is A Fun Idea, Until You Actually Have To Play In It

Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

We now divert our eye-gouged attention from the third day of the internet arguing about Julian Edelman, and whether he should be ascended directly into the Hall of Fame via astral projection, or forced to wait in line behind Wayne Chrebet. Instead, let’s discuss Dallas Mavericks’ galactic overlord Mark Cuban turning on the NBA’s nonsensically byzantine playoff format.

First, let’s review: Luka Doncic was the first to loudly hate the idea of the 7-8 and 9-10 rounds as a needless extension of an already packed schedule (1,080 games wedged into 146 days rather than the slightly roomier 1,230 games over 177 days), and then Cuban backed his play more forcefully, as he should, by gently suggesting that the idea was “an enormous mistake.”

“I get why the NBA is doing it,” Cuban said in a series of messages to ESPN’s Tim McMahon Tuesday. “But if we are going to be creative because of COVID, we should go straight up 1-20 and let the bottom 4 play in. This is the year particularly to do it since the 10 games cut [from the normal 82-game schedule] were in conference.

“The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top six since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous. So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.”

It was surely only the thinnest of coincidences that the Dallas Mavericks are currently and likely to remain in seventh place in the Western Conference, and would have to play the ever-ornery Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. And while nobody was paying full attention to Cuban while he was grousing about the current state of the playoffs, he was also subtly reintroducing the lament of the slightly disadvantaged and more generally unhinged that the playoffs should be seeded without conference barriers. It surely galls him, as it does most Western Conference adherents, that finishing seventh in the West takes a lot more gumption than the East, as any quick examination of Mavericks v. Boston Celtics would reveal. The West has been better than the East for the entirety of this century, so we’ve been hearing this particular whine-a-thon enough to want the conferences divided by a line drawn by a pen tied to an exuberant dog’s tale.

The compelling argument for maintaining the conference structure is to prevent the idea that Utah’s prize for having the best record would, in a normal 16-team format, be two cross-country trips to play the New York Knicks. The second-place Phoenix Suns would get Charlotte instead of more manageable travel to, well, Dallas.

I mean, we always know that Cuban’s in there thinking of the good of the game, and by the good of the game, we mean him. We will cheerfully accept Cuban’s mind-palace musings any time as long as they come with a magnifying glass to read the batteries-not-included section, with the dustmite-sized print and generally impenetrable legalese that makes one wish for the insects to develop more effective toxins, foreclose on our species en masse, and run the place themselves.

The compressed schedule (7.4 games per night rather than the more typical 6.9) may also be contributing a higher-than-usual number of injuries, the latest being Jamal Murray’s collapsed knee the other night in San Francisco, though answering that question requires a much deeper dive into the injury list than nobody other than Stephania Bell strapped into a chair and fed nothing but turbinado sugar and coffee could pull off. The idea behind load management was not to load more onto the managers, and there Cuban has a fairly unassailable point.

But mostly Cuban is suggesting a format in which the Mavs would safely in 10th place overall, well clear of the play-in madness in which they currently reside, and the play-in four would be San Antonio, Indiana, Stephen Curry, and Zion Williamson, to use their practical franchise names. Under the present structure, Curry is barely holding the last spot in the West, and will probably only be knocked from it by Zion. In short, the rest of your season is May 3, 4 and 14, when Curry and Zion face off thrice. With the Pelicans’ and Warriors’ recent buzzard’s luck with injuries, they’ll probably both miss all three games, and what’s left will fall under the strictures of the Geneva Convention.

Given that Cuban voted for the format that so aggrieves him, I reserve my sympathies for people like Murray, who are taking the fuller brunt of the sausaged schedule. I understand the sole goal of the Board of Governors is to provide more playoff games since that’s where the bulk of the TV money comes from, the default will always be against player safety through more rational asset management (There, soulless corporate bastard-speak enough for you?) and toward weirdo playoff structures.

In other words, what Cuban really wants without saying it is what every owner probably wants—expansion to 32 teams (Rochester and Syracuse, rather than Seattle and Las Vegas, just to enrage the perpetually irked Pacific Northwest) so that there are 219 possible playoff games rather than the normal 105 or the current 113, and a season that starts in October and ends in mid-July. The rest of us want promotion/relegation just to say we saw the beginning of the L.A. Clippers-Agua Caliente Clippers rivalry. I’m guessing Cuban is years away from getting what he wants, while we will probably need that insect uprising to get what’s right.