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The Lo-Down: NBA play-in tournament is useless

The last day of the 2023-24 NBA season featured a historic race for the top seed in the Western Conference. For the first time in the league’s history, three teams, the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Thunder, were tied for the top spot in their conference entering the last day of the season.

All three teams sat at 56-25 and had their final games scheduled within hours of one another, yet it feels like it could not matter less who finished where. The season would finish with the Thunder seated in first, followed by the Nuggets and the Timberwolves in that order.

A major reason for this lack of excitement, at least from me, regarding a historic finish to the NBA season is the play-in tournament.

The play-in tournament was founded in 2020-21 during the NBA’s first season following the COVID-19 bubble. It was a shortened season, only going 72 games rather than 82, and the play-in gave those teams sitting on the bubble of a playoff spot a chance to keep going, pitting the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th seeds against one another.

The play-in tournament is a single elimination-style tournament where in the first round, the seventh and eighth seeds battle for the seventh seed, with the loser advancing to the second round to face off against the winner of the nine-ten matchup for the final spot in the playoffs.

In its inception, I took no issue with the play-in tournament. In a shortened season it gave a necessary opportunity to the teams hoping to make a late playoff push. However, when the NBA decided to reprise it as a permanent fixture of postseason basketball, I began to lose enthusiasm.

Part of the reason it was so necessary in 2020-21 was the competitiveness between seeds seven and ten. 

In the Eastern Conference, the seventh-seeded Celtics sat just three games ahead of the tenth-seeded Hornets at the season’s end, while the ninth-seeded Pacers were tied with the eighth-seeded Wizards.

Out West, it was between the streaking Warriors and the young Grizzlies. The Warriors made a late-season push to overtake the Grizzlies in the standings by just one game, but would ultimately lose their spot in the playoffs in the play-in tournament.

The play-in tournament was good for some late-season dramatics and storylines in a shortened season, but three years later the mysticism has warn off and ultimately it just dulls the flair of what we’ve seen the last handful of days.

What is the meaning of a historic race for the top seed in a conference if we don’t know the matchups until days later? The uncertainty of it all was evident in the Eastern Conference as all three of the East’s two-seed contenders lost their season finale to avoid playing reigning MVP Joel Embiid or last season’s runner-up in the Heat.

There’s no inherent advantage to getting the one-seed anymore due to the chaos of the play-in tournament. Neither the Thunder nor the Nuggets will know who they are playing until the close of the play-in tournament, just four days ahead of their first matchup.

The Timberwolves, however, know they will be facing off against the Suns and will have the advantage of planning.

I doubt the play-in tournament will be going anywhere soon. The NBA has tied part of its post-season identity in recent years to it, and the dramatics still draw intrigue from fans of the teams involved. However, the dulling of the regular season’s final days is evident.

Logan Adams is a sophomore studying journalism. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Logan know by tweeting him @LoganA_NBA.

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