This year, the NBA instituted a play-in format for the bottom playoff seeds for the first time in league history. Briefly experimented with in the bubble, the short of this year's setup is that the 7-10 seeds will enter into a mini play-in tournament and must win their respective games in order to qualify for the postseason. The owners voted on it before the season, and it passed unanimously.
Over halfway through this year, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is having second thoughts. After his team's superstar, Luka Doncic, expressed his opinion that it didn't make a whole lot of sense to have a 72-game season and then force two playoff spots to come down to one or two wins, Cuban said instituting the play-in this year was an "enormous mistake." Via ESPN:
"In a regular season of 82 games where we aren't playing 30-plus games in 6 weeks, then it might have been OK," Cuban told ESPN. "But the compression of so many games into so few days makes this an enormous mistake. "If we had gone 1 to 16, with the top 12 in, it still would have been rough, but there would have been more separation between play-in and the top 12. This is a season where we have to rest high-usage players. We have no choice. And that can and will have consequences."
Cuban has something of a point. The foundation of the NBA postseason is that the better team will win the series more often than not. That's why there are playoff series and not single-elimination games like in football. To change that for the bottom seeds is a little unfair. Two fluke shooting nights from any of the final four teams could result in a worse team making the postseason than normal.
On the other hand, Cuban is not entirely correct by any means. The Mavs, like every other team, will have to rest their superstars down the stretch in order for them to be 100 percent for postseason play. One rest night for Doncic could theoretically knock the Mavs into the play-in tournament. But that isn't actually that much different than normal years, where a team can rest their stars during the end of the regular season at their own risk. The back half of the playoff standings are usually close enough that the 5-8 seeds are playing for positioning anyway. This particular year comes with the risk of slipping into the play-in and potentially missing the full playoffs. But that in of itself is not a whole lot different than making it as a seven-seed and getting swept by a much better squad.
It's also bizarre that Cuban is complaining about this when his team is a solid two games back of the six-seed, especially when every team is going to want to rest their high-usage players over the last few weeks of the season. It's not like the Mavs are in a unique position by any means, and no one else has sounded off about the unfairness of it all.
If Cuban wants to talk about mistakes, the enormous one with the benefit of hindsight was only shortening the season by 10 games or refusing to stretch the season further into the summer. We saw Jamal Murray go down last night, and it was probably because every team in the league has had to play more back-to-backs and three-games-in-four-nights stretches than ever before.
LeBron James. Anthony Davis. All three of the Nets' stars. Most of the biggest names that drive interest in the game have gotten hurt at least in part because last season stretched into October and the NBA couldn't afford to give everyone more than two months of an offseason. If even 10 more games had been taken away from the schedule, or if the regular season stretched into June instead of ending before Memorial Day Weekend, the issue of giving stars enough rest would have been eliminated, and so too would Cuban's complaints about the play-in tournament.
As previously stated, the better team wins in the postseason most of the time in the NBA. That could and probably will remain true with the play-in games. If the Mavs, for example, end up as the seven-seed come end of the year, they would have to lose two straight games to miss the postseason entirely. They only need one win to appear. I would bet they make it in that circumstance. We probably won't see a 10-seed make a postseason run because they are the tenth seed for a reason.
Nothing about this season is perfect, and maybe Cuban is right in that they should not have instituted the play-in tournament during an unusual year. But the play-in tournament itself is not the mistake. It's everything else, the factors that led Cuban to that conclusion, that are the bigger issues at hand in this NBA season.