How Does the NBA Play-in Work?

By Andrew D

April 11, 2022

Image Courtesy of Alamy

The end of the 2020/21 NBA season saw a significant change to the Playoff format. A mini ‘play-in’ tournament was introduced that affected things in several ways. It seems that, with a slightly altered format, this may be something we can expect to see ongoing in the NBA. Proposals are on the table. In this article, we will take a closer look at the actual structure of the Play-in tournament as it was. We will also give the reasoning behind it and discuss any objections and pros and cons as we see them.


Previously, the top eight teams in the Western Conference and the top eight in the Eastern Conference were automatically entered into the NBA Playoffs when the regular season ended. Their main goal all season was to ensure that they finished in the top 8. The new play-in format meant that only the top six would be guaranteed playoff spots. The rest would find themselves in a play-in mini-tournament.

In the first round, the team with the 7th highest winning percentage in each conference hosted the 8th-highest for one game.

The winner advancing from that one game became the seventh seed for the NBA Playoffs. Their work was done

At the same time, the team with the 9th highest winning percentage hosted the 10th highest.

The loser of that game was immediately eliminated. The winner of that game went on to play the loser of 7th vs. 8th.

Whoever won that last game (between the 7 vs 8 losers and the 9 vs 10 winners) in each separate conference became the No. 8 seed and the final two Playoff spots were now filled.


Four teams fight for 2 spots in the Playoffs. If a team finishes the regular NBA season 7th or 8th in their conference, they only need to win one of the two tournament games to make it through to the Playoffs. Should they lose, then they face another game to try and secure 8th seed.

If a team finishes 9th or 10th in the regular season, they must win two straight games to become the No. 8 seed.

(Image credit: Tim Shelby)


Because the regular 2021/22 NBA season had to be cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The schedule didn’t allow for the completion of a full 82-game schedule.

Teams that might otherwise have managed to fight their way into the top 8 in the last few weeks were going to be denied that opportunity through nobody’s fault. The NBA was forced to create the play-in concept to give a team finishing outside the top eight a chance to make the Playoffs.

But something interesting happened. With a dozen or so games remaining, 24 teams still went all out to try and make it to those final spots. They could now aim for 10th place and still feasibly get to the NBA Playoff series. The final weeks of the NBA regular season were more entertaining and hard-fought than they might otherwise have been. This did not go unnoticed.

It has long been accepted that if a team has no statistical chance of making the NBA Playoffs, all they are really fighting for is pride and the love of competition. That should be enough right? They’re being paid millions and millions of dollars to do just that. Surely they don’t need to be incentivized further?

Unfortunately, as much as we know that our beloved NBA superstars are as competitive as they come, they are only human. We cannot expect them to be as pumped for games late in the season that literally make no logistical difference as they would be for important matchups.

But there is a more sinister, downright despicable trend that is blighting the NBA and has done for many years.


So, what exactly is tanking?

Tanking is the disgraceful practice of replacing your star players with lower-tier players in games that are statistically meaningless. Once the Playoffs cannot logistically be reached, certain elements within certain teams argue that it is better to put the kids out and lose from that point onwards.


Here’s the dastardly part. If a team loses games that are effectively meaningless (to them maybe, the fans might have a word to say on that matter) then they may acquire a higher NBA Draft pick. The NBA Lottery system was introduced to try and combat this embarrassing tactic, yet it still endures. If a team does reasonably well in the regular season but cannot make the Playoffs then they might find their Draft pick shifts. It may move from the 10-15 range to the top 10 if they should happen to lose 18 of their last games. They cannot guarantee themselves the number one pick but seem prepared to take any and all advantages that they can. No matter the ethical nose-dives or lack of integrity and sporting honor it may display to the world.

Imagine deciding that it was better to give up fighting to climb higher up the league and was better to lose a ton of games so that you can pick a marginally better player for next season?

Imagine how the fans feel watching their side go down unnecessarily to teams they might otherwise have beaten?

Who is the game for at the end of the day?

Do we expect the fans to keep pouring their hard-earned dollars into watching a team that is almost deliberately trying to lose?

This could easily turn into a rant, as it stokes the fires of purest rage in our bellies. But that is for another article. Here, we merely point out one of the main reasons that a play-in tournament might be a positive move for the NBA and let you be the judge of the character of those who choose to tank.


Effectively, the teams that are seeded 1-6 get an extra rest heading into the Playoffs. The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference also gain a slight advantage as their opponents will have to play at least one game between the end of the regular season and the start of the Playoffs.


It would be fair to say that the play-in tournament received mixed reviews. Fans and broadcasters seemed to appreciate the additional games, especially if they led to some marquee matchups. The Players themselves and the coaches and owners have been generally less impressed it seems. There were certainly some high-profile objections to the new format. Although he had previously suggested something similar himself, LeBron James was quoted as saying


But James was not a lone disparaging voice.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said that the decision was an:




If something rakes in huge dividends then it is almost guaranteed to be an option that will be fought for. Tooth and nail.

Let’s put aside the increased competitive nature of more late-season matchups for a moment.

The fact is that a miniature tournament of any kind increases attention and buzz around the games involved. It is a system employed in European soccer tournaments and we know how successful those are financially.

Sponsors’ ears prick up as far as they can go at this news. The TV ratings are superb for those games that affect the lineup of the NBA Playoffs. There is money to be made all around. As a similar incentive for the players, there have been rumours circulating. Those include awarding one million dollars to each player on the winning team!

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver believes that a change of system will gain popularity among both players and fans. Maybe once they see it in action. It seems that the agreed new format would be slightly different and be based around pool-play that becomes a single-game elimination scenario as it progresses. The details are still not fully clear but it seems that the regular season might drop by 4 games down to 78 as a result.


Love it or hate the idea, it seems that some form of play-in tournament is inevitable in the NBA moving forwards.

The only people who stand to lose out are those that finish 7th and 8th in their respective conferences. If the plan goes well during the regular season then they still have their shot at making the Finals. But can now have it snatched away from them by lower-ranked teams at the last minute. Now, while that has to hurt for sure, the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks as far as we’re concerned here at The Jump Hub. How about you?

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