The NBA is open-minded. It is perhaps the league's defining trait in a tradition-obsessed sports landscape. When fans grew tired of the original East-West All-Star format, the league mixed it up. First, we got the All-Star Draft, then we got the Elam Ending. The Elam Ending was such a resounding success that the league has said it expects to adopt the format for future All-Star Games. The NBA invented the idea of the Draft Lottery to combat tanking and has tinkered with it on several occasions to try to find the right balance between not incentivizing losing while still maintaining parity. When something in basketball is broken, the league office makes an earnest attempt to fix it.
This season's race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, through no fault of any of the participants, was broken. The Memphis Grizzlies rode one of the NBA's easiest schedules into the No. 8 seed in March, but had 82 games been played as expected, the easier schedules of some of the teams beneath them easily could have closed the gap. Playing 82 games was not possible, and despite calls to only invite the top 16 teams to Orlando in order to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission, the NBA created a system specifically to give more popular teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans a chance to reach the playoffs. Fans wanted Zion Williamson and Damian Lillard to have real chances to reach the postseason, so the league tried to give it to them.
The first-of-its-kind play-in system has been a resounding success... with one notable exception. The Phoenix Suns went undefeated, posted the bubble's best point-differential by far and became arguably the most popular lottery team in recent NBA history. They still aren't making the playoffs. By any measure, Phoenix is one of the Western Conference's nine best teams at the moment, but they won't have a chance to prove it. Fans, predictably, are furious. Two of the best weeks of regular-season basketball the NBA has ever seen are going to culminate in Lillard spanking the injury-riddled Memphis Grizzlies instead of dueling perhaps his only bubble equal in Devin Booker.
So here we have a clearly broken system, one designed to maximize fan entertainment that will likely end in an anticlimactic blowout. NBA history suggests that the league is already concocting a plan to fix that.
And the fact of that matter is, it needed to be fixed either way. Phoenix's disappointment is just going to speed up the process. Had the Suns managed to get up to No. 9 after going 8-0 and provided the play-in excitement we all expected, the NBA would have seen no reason to expand its ambitions. If an 8-9 play-in had worked as intended, the NBA would, in all likelihood, have adopted it for future use but left the current rules untouched.
But now we've seen the ways in which an 8-9 play-in doesn't work, and in response, the NBA will have to consider alternatives. If fans want to give the No. 10 team in the bracket a chance to reach the playoffs, the league has no good reason not to.
The possibilities are fairly simple. The No. 9 and No. 10 teams could force automatic play-ins against No. 7 and No. 8, regardless of record, and those series could run concurrently to avoid overly disturbing the typical playoff schedule. A more dramatic solution might involve some sort of round-robin between the top few lottery teams for the right to challenge No. 8. The league could even set a threshold. Every team within a certain number of games of No. 8 gets a chance to play for a postseason spot. The format could change annually to accommodate them.
The NBA is ultimately a business. More games, particularly the sort of dramatic ones that the Nets and Blazers provided on Thursday, means more revenue. Players seemed just as enthused about the changes made for the bubble. Phoenix came to Orlando with almost no chance of reaching the postseason and still played their hearts out to win eight games. Brooklyn had nothing to play for with their No. 7 seed locked up prior to Thursday's game, but they still went all out for the chance to spoil Portland's season. Every party involved in major league decisions has reason to want more of this.
But inertia is the most powerful force in professional sports. It's what kept the All-Star format unchanged for so long and what will prevent us from ever eliminating conferences and moving to a 1-16 format. When something works, there will always be forces satisfied enough to push back against changing it. Why would Eastern Conference owners vote to go 1-16 when the past two decades have shown it would just lower their odds of reaching the postseason? Change requires a catalyst. Necessity is the mother of invention.
The NBA needed the Suns as a martyr to prove that the play-in format it created for the bubble just wasn't enough. As successful as the basic concept was, it needed to go further to achieve its ultimate goal: creating the most entertaining (and profitable) end of the regular season and postseason as possible. By missing out on the Suns this postseason, we might have the catalyst we need to get generations of future Suns-like teams into the playoffs. As disappointing as that will make the next several days, it would be a small price to play for the sort of expanded play-in format fans deserve.