One Stat Sums Up Why The NBA Play-In Tournament Is A Virtually Pointless Spectacle

NBA logo on basketball

Getty Image

In 2020, the NBA was one of the many sports leagues that were forced to scramble to whip up a contingency plan after having their season derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The solution came in the form of The Bubble that was constructed at Walt Disney World in Orlando ahead of the playoffs—although the NBA also had to figure out a way to determine which teams had earned the right to participate in the postseason.

That led to the inaugural edition of the Play-In Tournament (which was a bit of a misnomer considering the circumstances) that saw the Trail Blazers secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference with a victory over the Grizzlies in what was a do-or-die contest for Memphis.

That experiment led to the NBA’s Board of Governors drafting a proposal later that year that would make the Play-In Tournament a permanent fixture that now involves the teams sitting between the seventh and 10th spots in the standings when the regular season ends compete for the seventh and eighth seed prior to the “official” start of the postseason.

2023 marks the third time the Play-In Tournament has been held, and its relative infancy means it hasn’t really generated that many memorable moments or dramatics (although Patrick Beverly’s reaction to the Timberwolves beating the Clippers in 2022 did create a meme for the ages).

Part of the reason the NBA embraced the Play-In round with open arms was the hopes it would up the level of intrigue surrounding the playoffs (the fact that it also serves as an additional source of the almighty advertising revenue probably doesn’t hurt).

The television ratings it’s been able to generate suggest those games are also accompanied by an above average-level of intrigue among basketball fans when you compare the viewership totals to the typical regular season game.

However, it’s pretty hard to ignore one major aspect that’s gone largely overlooked: the fact that history shows it doesn’t really matter who secures the lowest playoffs seeds when everything is said and done.

Why the NBA Play-In Tournament is essentially useless

Embed from Getty Images

Much like the NBA has been more than happy to take advantage of the cash the Play-In Tournament is able to generate, the teams who ultimately come out on top also benefit from the money they’re able to make by selling tickets to fans who will attend at least a couple more games at their arena.

However, those teams haven’t had any sustained success since the advent of the new format.

In 2021, the Lakers and Grizzlies respectively secured the seventh and eighth seed in the Western Conference while the Celtics and Wizards did the same in the East. None of those teams were able to advance, as Los Angeles lost to the Suns in six games while the other three squads saw their series end after five.

A similar story unfolded in 2022. The Timberwolves and Pelicans won two games before being eliminated in the West, the Hawks only recorded a single victory against the top-seeded Heat, and the Nets were unceremoniously swept by the Celtics in the first round.

You might argue two years isn’t enough to make any sweeping generalizations, but those isolated examples are reflective of an issue concerning the Play-In Tournamnet’s raison d’être on a larger scale.

As things currently stand, the Atlanta Hawks are the lowest-seeded NBA team to win an NBA title (they did so as the sixth seed in 1995).

The seventh or eighth seed has only recorded a first-round upset on ten occasions, and the vast majority of those teams were eliminated in the second round. The Knicks are the only eight-seed that has managed to advance to the NBA Finals (they ended up losing to the Spurs in 1999), and a seven-seed has yet to represent its conference in the championship round.

Sure, there’s obviously a chance some team that wins the Play-In Tournament is able to defy the odds at some point in the future.

However, the general lack of parity in the NBA playoffs means it’s very, very unlikely the play-in is going to produce a team that secures the Larry O’Brien Trophy—or, for that matter, spawn any squad with a sizeable chance to make any sort of deep run.

READ NEXT: It Might Be Time To Accept The NBA All-Star Game Can’t Be Fixed
Connor Toole avatar and headshot for BroBible
Connor Toole is the Deputy Editor at BroBible. He is a New England native who went to Boston College and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Frequently described as "freakishly tall," he once used his 6'10" frame to sneak in the NBA Draft and convince people he was a member of the Utah Jazz.