If you’re befuddled as to why the NBA’s regular season is over but the Utah Jazz are still days away from knowing who their first-round playoff opponent will be, you’re not alone.
How is it that the team with the best record in the NBA, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, doesn’t know who it’ll be facing in the postseason yet?
There is a not-insignificant number of people out there scratching their heads about the so-called “play-in tournament” and asking questions about it: How does it work? What is its impact? … Why is it even a thing to begin with?
All good questions.
Let’s answer ‘em.
OK, what are the basic details of the play-in tournament?
For the last almost 30 years or so, the NBA playoffs have followed the same format — the top eight teams per conference get an automatic postseason spot, and are seeded 1 through 8, based primarily upon their regular-season records and, in the case of ties, head-to-head matchups and division titles. The 1 seed faces the 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 against 6, and 4 vs. 5. And then the winners of those series meet up in subsequent rounds.
That’s mostly still the same, but there have been some extra teams and steps added this time around.
This season, only the 1 through 6 seeds in each conference are guaranteed a first-round series. The seventh- through 10th-place teams get entered into a two-stage mini-tournament to try to earn a series.
So we’re going to wind up with eight teams — split between the two conferences — playing six games to determine four seeds. It’s kind of like a more-convoluted “first four” system from the NCAA Tournament.
NBA PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT
Game 1 • No. 10 Hornets at No. 9 Pacers: Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 2 • No. 8 Wizards at No. 7 Celtics: Tuesday, 7 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 3 • No. 10 Spurs at No. 9 Grizzlies: Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. MT, ESPN
Game 4 • No. 8 Warriors at No. 7 Lakers: Wednesday, 8 p.m. MT, ESPN
Game 5 • Game 1 winner at Game 2 loser: Thursday, 6 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 6 • Game 3 winner at Game 4 loser: Friday, time TBD, ESPN
Sounds complicated. Why the heck do we need a play-in tournament anyway?
People who are cynical of the play-in tournament (“More TV money!”) are undoubtedly figuring this is nothing more than change for the sake of change, a transparent, televised cash grab which unnecessarily messes with tradition — “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as the saying goes.
Well, the NBA would counter that there most certainly was something broken — not the existing playoff format, per se, but rather the sheer number of teams tanking games once they decided they’re unlikely to qualify for the playoffs.
By creating a secondary postseason pathway via including two extra teams per conference, the hope was that fewer teams would give up on the season so early, and that late-season games would not be so thoroughly consumed by “load management” and fake injuries as to make the product unwatchable and pointless.
And it worked.
The Spurs finished a full five games back of the eighth-place Warriors, yet still were going for it. The Pelicans were two games back of the Spurs, but they stuck with it for a bit longer than they would ordinarily, too. Beyond that, we saw the likes of the Lakers, Blazers and Mavericks all furiously maneuvering to avoid the play-in — ill-timed back-to-back losses and the defending champs could be out! The result was a lot more games that mattered, and a lot more excitement down the stretch. The play-in format is likely here to stay now.
[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]
So what are the specifics of this inaugural play-in tournament?
We’ve finally arrived at the germane portion of the program to those wondering how this impacts the Jazz. So let’s get after it.
Basically, the seventh-place and eighth-place teams from the standings will play a game against each other (In the East: No. 7 Celtics vs. No. 8 Wizards on Tuesday; in the West: No. 7 Lakers vs. No. 8 Warriors on Wednesday). The winners of those games are then officially the No. 7 playoff seed, and will be matched up against their respective conference’s No. 2 seed (Nets in the East, Suns in the West).
Meanwhile, the ninth- and 10th-place teams will also play a game against each other (East: No. 9 Pacers vs. No. 10 Hornets on Tuesday; West: No. 9 Grizzlies vs. No. 10 Spurs on Wednesday). The losers of those games are eliminated, and their seasons are over. The winners of those games, however, then have to face the losers of the 7/8 matchups, and the winners of those games become the No. 8 seeds.
Maybe that’s a bit difficult to follow? Got it. Here’s a theoretical example:
Let’s say the Lakers beat the Warriors, and the Grizzlies beat the Spurs in the Western Conference play-in games on Wednesday. The Lakers then become the 7 seed and get matched up against the Suns in a best-of-seven first-round series. San Antonio would be eliminated and go home for the offseason. Meanwhile, Memphis and Golden State would then face off against each other on Friday night, with the winner of that game becoming the West’s No. 8 seed — and earning a first-round series against Utah.
So the No. 1-seeded Jazz — who finished with the best record in the entire NBA — aren’t going to know their best-of-seven playoff opponent for certain until Friday night, a detail that many consider unfair, as it will force the team to divvy up its scouting resources between multiple teams, as opposed to one predetermined opponent (as, say, the third-place Nuggets and sixth-seeded Blazers can do). That could impact their ability to win a championship.
Rather than complain about uncertainty, though, the Jazz are embracing the intrigue.
“Those games are going to be fun to watch. I’m excited to watch those games,” said Rudy Gobert. “And whoever we face, we know that it’s going to be a long journey, and we’re going to be ready.”