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LeBron James Never Wanted a Play-In Tournament, But Now He's Stuck With One

By Stephen Douglas
LeBron James
LeBron James / Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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After a loss to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks with eight games remaining. One of those teams will finish seventh in the Western Conference and find themselves in the play-in tournament. Last month it was Luka Doncic and Mark Cuban complaining about the fairness of the tournament. Now it's LeBron James.

However the next few weeks go, the '20-'21 Lakers will be the lowest-seeded LeBron James team aside from the early Cavs teams that missed the playoff. The next-lowest seed LeBron has ever been associated with was the '07-'08 Cavaliers, who were fourth in the Eastern Conference.

So while no one has ever had to deal with this in a regular regular season, LeBron probably still thought it would never happen to him. So you can excuse his comments last year when he sounded like he was in favor of the play-in tournament during the pandemic season.

"You got Portland. You got Memphis...New Orleans and Sacramento tinkering around there...so if there's five or ten games left...why not those guys battle it out? Make them play each other all five games?"

Some will say this is hypocritical, but he was clearly talking about teams losing a fair shot at the playoffs when the season appeared to end after about 60 games. Plus, he's on the record as calling the idea of a play-in tournament both "corny" and "wack" three years ago.

"That's wack. That's wack. Why? You got to earn your spot to be in the postseason. No consolation for finishing last. That's corny. That's corny. That's wack. To play for what? What are they playing for?"

For LeBron and Luka and likely so many players, the play-in tournament is wrong. it's not how things were done. It's been the top eight seeds forever. The NBA really should get rid of it next year when there is a regular, fans-in-the-stands, 82-game regular season.

But in reality, for fans and everyone else, the play-in tournament should probably stay. More teams are in the mix and more games matter. It adds a little bit of March Madness chaos to the NBA Playoffs marathon.

Going back two seasons, the Lakers finished 10th in the Western Conference after LeBron was lost for the season. In that scenario, LeBron could have come back with a few games remaining in the regular season and ended up getting a shot at the Warriors. In the 1-8 matchup. The year before, the Miami Heat finished ninth, with the same exact record as the eight seed. Rookie Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets finished a game out of eighth.

Those all would have been nice to add to the postseason mix. And that's what the NBA wants. It just so happens that for once it doesn't align with what LeBron James wants.

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