LeBron James doesn't like the NBA's new postseason format, which includes a play-in tournament for the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds. As it works, only the top six seeds are guaranteed a playoff spot. The 7-8 seeds have to win a play-in series to get in, and the 9-10 seeds have to win two series.
LeBron's gripe echoes that of Luka Doncic and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, both of whom have been recently critical of the new play-in format. Not coincidentally, the Mavericks and Lakers are both in danger of having to play their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament. Obviously they're not going to think it's fair that a team that played all season to earn a traditional playoff spot would then have to get through additional potential do-or-die game(s).
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But here's the deal: Things change. And this change, like Major League Baseball's wild-card postseason expansion, is in the best interest of the NBA and its players. Keeping more teams in the hunt for a play-in spot discourages tanking, and the play-in games themselves are an additional revenue stream that will ultimately flow into the players' and teams' pockets. When these guys start accepting less money, then they can moan about how that money is generated.
Also, is LeBron really going to play the equity card just because the new postseason system might not work in his favor this year? The guy played in the Eastern Conference for 15 years. Did he really travel the most equitable path to his eight straight Finals berths? Go talk to Chris Paul or Damian Lillard about how fair the traditional two-conference setup is.
LeBron has had the advantage of basically not even having to show up until the second round of the playoffs, if then, for the majority of his postseason career. Now we're supposed to cry for the man because he suddenly has to lead his team to a top-six seed? If anything, he should direct his frustrations at his teammates, who've allowed the Lakers to slip into this precarious position -- tied in the loss column with No. 7 Portland -- in LeBron's extended absence.
For years the NBA playoffs have rewarded relative mediocrity. Basically every team with a functional heartbeat gets in. Now that's not true. The Mavericks, Lakers and Blazers are all good teams, and they're fighting to win every game. In the past, it would be nothing but a bunch of seed shuffling and rest. The difference between a 6 and 7 seed wasn't punitive enough to highly prioritize seeding. Now it is.
Each seed you fall down to 10 has legitimate consequences. This lends an already largely irrelevant regular season at least a modicum of intrigue down the stretch. At the end of the day, this is about entertainment. This is about engaging as many fans as possible. That's why these guys make hundreds of millions of dollars. It's about the product. The play-in tournament should be adopted permanently.
Frankly, the revamping shouldn't stop there. The NBA should be looking hard at its entire product right now. The postseason structure still isn't entirely equitable. People say conference imbalance runs in cycles, but what sense does that make? So it's been tougher to go through the West for decades, but when the pendulum shifts (if it ever does again) to the East being the tougher conference, somehow that will be better?
It's still unfair. It still eliminates the opportunity for a lot of really exciting playoff series that under the current format simply can't happen. We never saw Kobe Bryant and LeBron play in a playoff series. That's somehow good for the NBA product? No. It's not.
While we're at it, neither are the five-minute reviews inside the last two minutes. The final minutes of NBA games are dreadful. There is no argument to the contrary. All the drama is zapped up in reviews and fouls and timeouts and a little bit of basketball mixed in between. It's truly awful. Heck, even when you're winning you're incentivized to foul these days. Up three? Just hack, and the fans can watch a couple meaningless free throws instead of a potential game-tying 3-pointer.
Is that what fills the seats? Is that what sells TV contracts? No. You know what does look good on the marquee? A potential Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James play-in matchup. And that's on the table. Or we could see Damian Lillard vs. Curry in a March Madness-type win-or-go-home game. This is what the people will gather in arenas and sports bars and living rooms to watch.
If LeBron doesn't want to play in those games, there's a very simple solution: Don't put yourself in position to have to. Win more games. Because this isn't about equity. The schedule and conference imbalance is already highly inequitable, and again, LeBron was on the softer side of that imbalance for years. Now a little bit of that bill is coming due. It's harder in the West. It's harder with this play-in tournament. And in this case, the harder is what makes it better.