The true value of the NBA’s play-in tournament

Commissioner Adam Silver spearheaded the NBA Play-In Tournament (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Commissioner Adam Silver spearheaded the NBA Play-In Tournament (Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

As we cruise past the midway point of the 2022/23 NBA season, it seems as good a time as any to look around and make observations about the league.  It is impossible to talk about this season without acknowledging some of the incredible basketball that we have all been able to observe this year.

We’ve seen budding rivalries beginning to take form, historic scoring from the league’s best players, and historic performances seemingly every other night.  What I find most exciting though, is the parity throughout the league.

This certainly isn’t the first time that the league has been chock-full of great teams, but something about the true parity this season feels unique. For example, the 4th-seed New Orleans Pelicans and 10th-seed Utah Jazz are separated by only 1.5 games.  This means that on any given night, teams are rapidly rising and falling up and down the standings.

The NBA feels more unpredictable

While not as extreme in the Eastern Conference, a similar pattern can be seen. The 9th seed Pacers sit only five games back from Brooklyn and the fourth seed in the East.  This level of parity is certainly refreshing for many NBA fans, especially considering we are only a few seasons removed from the era in which the Cavaliers and Warriors meeting in the f=Finals felt predictable and even predetermined at times.

This season however could not be any different.  In each conference, there are seemingly 4-5 teams whose championship aspirations are not only feasible but realistic. Even the teams that are underneath the championship level though, will still certainly be tough outs in the playoffs and cannot be taken lightly.

We have also seen several surprise teams outperform almost tall preseason expectations this year.  The Sacramento Kings have emerged as not only an incredibly fun team but a very talented one as well. Before his injury, The true value of the NBA’s play-in tournament had been a revelation for the Indiana Pacers and has turned what many thought would be a tanking team, into one that is firmly in the hunt for a playoff spot.  It’s hard not to wonder, what has caused this influx of parity, and why teams that in the past may have tanked, shattered expectations, and proved to be competitive.

Is this parity the true value of the NBA Play-In Tournament?

At first, like many, I was very skeptical of the play-in tournament. However, after 2 seasons, and seeing its effect on the league, I have become a major fan of the concept. I certainly acknowledge some of the criticisms. Fans of teams that have fought all season to acquire the 7 or 8 seed are frustrated at the prospect that they are forced to defend their spot in the playoffs. I have also heard the opinion that the play in tournaments allows too many teams to be a part of the postseason.  Despite these valid criticisms though, I still believe the play has resulted in far more pros than cons.

I think most importantly, the play-in system encourages teams to stay competitive. Around this time in previous seasons, it would be far more likely that teams beneath the 8 seed would become sellers at the trade deadline.  In the new format, however, where teams only must reach the 10 seed to have a puncher’s chance at making the playoffs, which means some of those teams may in fact become buyers at the deadline.

For example, the Lakers, Pacers, Timberwolves, and Raptors have all had their names come up often in trade rumors, yet they are all 9th seeds or lower.  As a result of this new dynamic, we have more teams fighting for the playoffs, and more competitive basketball down the stretch.

More teams are in the playoff race down the stretch.

A common complaint of an NBA fan is that the season is far too long, which results in many regular season games feeling meaningless. I feel the play-in helps to remedy this issue as well.  With the importance of seeding becoming amplified, teams have more incentive to fight for a six seed or above.  This means deep into the season, regular season games still have tremendous importance to teams six and up fighting to stay out of the play-in, and teams nine and under fighting to get into it.

This will be the third season since the NBA play-in tournament has been introduced and I feel the results speak for themselves.  There are only 5-6 teams (depending on your thoughts about the Thunder) who have no chance to make the postseason this year.  That means that there could be at least 24 teams that will remain competitive until the end of the NBA season.  As a fan of the NBA and competitive basketball, that seems like an absolute win.

An NBA midseason tournament is a really bad idea. dark. Next

There are surely many factors that have contributed to the increased level of parity in the NBA this season.  However, it is impossible to deny that the play-in tournament has been one of them.  Thus, I would argue that it has been a fantastic addition to an already incredible NBA.