In almost any other season in NBA history, the Dallas Mavericks would essentially be assured a playoff spot. Sitting at 29-24, they currently hold the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, and with a 2.5-game lead over the declining San Antonio Spurs at No. 9, the NBA's old eight-team format would have practically guaranteed them a spot in the postseason.
Things are a bit more complicated this season. Rather than guaranteeing eight teams their place in the playoffs, each conference has only six slots available that can be clinched. The teams seeded No. 7 through No. 10 have to compete in the play-in round of the postseason, and if the team at No. 7 loses two consecutive home games, they fall out of the playoffs entirely. That's an outcome Luka Doncic doesn't agree with, as he explained to reporters on Monday.
"I don't understand the idea of the play-in [tournament]," Doncic said. "You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you're out of the playoffs. I don't see the point of that."
Mavericks team owner mark Cuban echoed his star player's comments Tuesday afternoon.
"The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule," Cuban told ESPN. "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."
The play-in tournament was unanimously approved by every team owner in the league before the season started, including Cuban himself.
"In hindsight, this approach was an enormous mistake," Cuban said.
The obvious motivation behind the play-in round is economic, which Cuban understands. Extra postseason games mean extra revenue. More teams get to say they competed beyond the regular season in order to entice further season ticket sales. That explanation obviously wouldn't satisfy Doncic, but there are plenty of basketball benefits to the new system as well.
In theory, it rewards the best teams. They get to play against opponents that are tired from the play-in round, and that, in turn, forces teams at the bottom of the playoff bracket to fight until the last game of the season rather than simply being comfortable with a top-eight spot. It also gives teams with injury problems a break. Imagine a season in which Doncic himself needed to miss 40 or 50 games due to a fluke injury. The old system would have virtually locked him out of the postseason. The new one offers good teams with bad luck a better chance.
The new system might end up hurting Dallas this season. One day, it might end up saving the Mavericks. Ultimately, Doncic can control his own fate in the play-in. All he needs to do to avoid the fate he described is win.