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Andy Larsen: The NBA’s play-in games are actually pretty brilliant, despite what the Lakers say

The vast majority of NBA teams now have something to play for as the season winds down, and that’s all you can ask.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) knocks the ball out of Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) hands as the Utah Jazz take on the L.A. Lakers, Feb. 24, 2021 at Vivint Arena.

Enjoyably, there’s a chance that the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers might not make the playoffs this year.

OK, sure, it’s a long shot. They currently sit as the No. 6 seed, which would give them entry into the playoffs, no problem. But, as I write this, they stand just one half-game ahead of the seventh seed. And for that spot, and for the seeds No. 8-10 below it, the NBA has come up with a brilliant invention: the play-in tournament.

The play-in tournament pits those four teams against one another to see who has the rights to make the real playoffs. First, the seventh and eighth seed play a game, with the winner moving on quickly to face the No. 2 seed. Then, the loser of that game plays the winner of a game between the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds. The winner of that contest, then, can play the No. 1 seed.

The upshot of this is that if that No. 7 seed loses two games in May, they could miss out on the playoffs entirely. And it is for this reason that LeBron James is quite mad, telling reporters who asked him about it that “Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired.”

I’m reminded of a certain bit of slang in the video game community — gamers are renowned for their particular economy of dismissive language. The phrase used is: “git gud.” It means ... get good. Gamers use it in situations just like this, where one player is complaining about some unfair happenstance, while the solution to their losing is well within their control.

I generally enjoy LeBron James, but if he has a problem with the play-in tournament, there’s an easy way to avoid it: get good. Play better basketball. He, and his team, wouldn’t be in that position if they hadn’t lost six of their last eight games, including to the woeful Sacramento Kings without De’Aaron Fox. It turns out that this is a competitive industry, and there are consequences to losing.

The guy who came up with the idea who LeBron is suggesting needs to be fired turns out to be NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Strategy & Analytics Evan Wasch, who responded to James’ comments in the Washington Post this week. Wasch didn’t resort to gamer speak, but he did clearly explain the benefits of the play-in tournament:

“You’ve significantly increased the competitive incentive in a much wider swath of the standings [for teams] to want to move up,” Wasch told the Post. “The intent is to give more teams, more markets and more fans the feeling that they still have something to play for. On that basis, it’s absolutely been successful.”

Wasch is right. The fact that LeBron and the Lakers are worried about something with a week left to go is very, very good for the league. Would James, Davis and Co. prefer to be coasting their way to a mediocre seed? Of course! But now they have something to play for, which means more games with stars on the court, more effort given, and more eyeballs.

It has also proved promising at the other end of the spectrum. Once seen as a relative lock to make the play-in tournament, the Spurs’ recent faltering has meant that the Pelicans now have a chance to pass them for the No. 10 seed. For every team from 5-11, there’s real drama about whether or not they’ll make the playoffs. That’s fun!

And we haven’t even gotten to the play-in tournament itself. For the first time besides playoff Game 7s, the NBA has single-elimination games of consequence. One of Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, or James will find themselves in the No. 7 seed. Steph Curry and Ja Morant are trying to lead their teams to a playoff berth in the No. 8 and No. 9 slots. And now Zion Williamson could be in at No. 10? These players facing off in these one-game showdowns provides viewers with real impetus to watch in a way we usually don’t see late in the regular season, or even early in the playoffs.

In other words, the play-in tournament is working as advertised. The vast majority of NBA teams have something to play for as the season winds down, and that’s all you can ask. For the Lakers, and other teams on the play-in bubble, it’s no time to whine. It’s time to git gud.

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