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How a Play-in Tournament Would’ve Altered Recent History

How many new 8-seeds would the NBA have gotten if it introduced its new format a decade ago? We went through each playoff race to track down the ripple effects.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the first time since the early 1980s, the NBA will have a tiered playoff structure this summer. The top seven seeds in each conference will automatically qualify for the postseason bracket, but then comes a play-in wrinkle. If the no. 9 seed is more than four games back of the no. 8, the latter team automatically qualifies as well. If the no. 9 seed is close enough, however, then the two teams will compete in a brief play-in round—it’s too short to rightfully call a tournament—in which the no. 8 seed must win once, and the no. 9 seed twice, to advance to the real playoffs.

It’s possible that this structure will exist only in 2020, due to the abrupt and unprecedented shortening of the regular season. But commissioner Adam Silver has long sought heightened drama at the end of the regular season, and after the excitement of the organic play-in game between Minnesota and Denver on the final day of the 2017-18 regular season, it’s also possible that the 2020 structure will serve as a gateway to play-in setups in future seasons.

How would such a system change the end of the regular season and the playoffs as we’ve known them? Let’s apply a play-in structure to the past decade of NBA seasons and observe the alternate histories, before taking some lessons from the experience to understand what play-in games might mean for the league’s future.

2009-10 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 41-41 Bulls (18th in net rating) vs. 40-42 Raptors (19th in net rating) in the play-in round
  • 84 percent chance the Bulls advance with both home-court advantage and the double-elimination advantage, according to a playoff prediction model
  • West: No play-in, because the eighth-seeded Thunder, at 50-32, were well clear of the ninth-seeded Rockets, at 42-40

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

No. The Bulls clinched a playoff spot with a three-game winning streak to finish the season—including a crucial win in Toronto in both teams’ 80th games—and would have fought just as hard for the no. 8 advantage if a play-in system had been in place. No other team was close to the no. 9 spot.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

The top-seeded Cavaliers handled the no. 8 Bulls with ease in the East’s first round that postseason, winning in five games. Cleveland had home-court advantage and was a much better team than Chicago, so the Cavs had a 95 percent chance of winning that series. What if the Raptors had advanced instead? Cleveland’s odds would have been 95 percent in that hypothetical matchup, too.

2010-11 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 37-45 Pacers (19th) vs. 35-47 Bucks (17th)
  • 84 percent chance the Pacers advance
  • West: 46-36 Grizzlies (10th) vs. 43-39 Rockets (11th)
  • 85 percent chance the Grizzlies advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

A bit, but not much. The Pacers had already clinched the no. 8 seed before the final couple games of the season, while Milwaukee edged out Charlotte for the no. 9 seed by one game—but the Bucks won the season series against the Bobcats, so they wouldn’t have needed a victory in their final game to qualify.

In the West, the only drama would have existed at the barrier between nos. 7 and 8. The Hornets and Grizzlies were tied with two games to go, but Memphis rested Zach Randolph and Tony Allen because the final regular-season games mattered only for seeding purposes. Had avoiding a play-in round been on the line, Randolph and Allen would have certainly played the 81st and 82nd games on the schedule.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

Top-seeded Chicago boasted a 96 percent chance of defeating the Pacers, and did so in a five-game gentleman’s sweep after taking a 3-0 lead. The Bucks would have scarcely fared better; Chicago’s odds against Milwaukee—which it swept in four regular-season meetings—would have been 96 percent, too.

2010-11 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Bulls Pacers 96%
Bulls Bucks 96%
Spurs Grizzlies 76%
Spurs Rockets 78%

The Western picture might have changed significantly. Memphis pummeled the top-seeded Spurs in the first round, pulling the 8-over-1 upset in six games. (It would have been five if not for Gary Neal’s miracle 3.) Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 36 points and 22 rebounds per game, and the Spurs shot just 44 percent (including 29 percent from 3) for the series.

The Grizzlies would have been favored against Houston, but would have been far from a sure thing to advance past a play-in round. It’s possible that Dirk Nowitzki would have never won a championship if the system had been in place in 2011, and thus made it harder for Memphis to knock off the West’s best team in the first round.

2011-12 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 35-31 76ers (fifth) vs. 31-35 Bucks (17th)
  • 94 percent chance the 76ers advance
  • West: 36-30 Jazz (16th) vs. 34-32 Rockets (18th)
  • 85 percent chance the Jazz advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes. The Knicks and 76ers entered the last day of the 2012 regular season tied at 35-30, but neither team fielded its typical starting lineup with mere seeding on the line. LeBron James’s Heat were the no. 2 seed, too, so it’s not as if the no. 7 seed was particularly favorable compared to the no. 8. (In fact, Philadelphia’s Evan Turner admitted he wanted to fall to no. 8 and face the Bulls instead.) Check out these Remember Some Guys lineups:

Knicks: Mike Bibby, Landry Fields, Iman Shumpert, Amar’e Stoudemire, Josh Harrellson

76ers: Jodie Meeks, Evan Turner, Craig Brackins, Lavoy Allen, Spencer Hawes

Suffice it to say, the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Jrue Holiday, and Andre Iguodala would have played if the difference between no. 7 and 8 had been more severe. (The result, with New York finishing seventh, would have likely been the same as in real life: In their final game, the Knicks were playing the Bobcats, losers of 22 games in a row as they completed the worst season by winning percentage in NBA history.)

The West would have experienced even more jostling for position. With one week to go in the regular season, the Western standings were bunched near the cutoff point:

6. Dallas, 35-28
7. Denver, 34-28
8. Utah, 33-30
9. Phoenix, 32-30
10. Houston, 32-30

And that final week included games like Denver vs. Phoenix and Utah vs. Phoenix. Ultimately, the situation resolved rather peacefully, with Denver, Dallas, and Utah all clinching playoff spots with time to spare, but a play-in system that incorporated three different inflection points (for the no. 7 seed, to avoid the play-in round; for no. 8, for the play-in advantage; and for no. 9, to qualify) would have inspired chaos.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

It depends—how much blame do the 76ers deserve for Derrick Rose’s injury in Game 1 of the Chicago-Philadelphia series? Philadelphia was a much better team than its record reflected—see that sparkling fifth-place ranking in net rating—but the 76ers were also overmatched against the Bulls. After Rose’s injury, though, Philadelphia advanced, and almost made it past Boston, too, before falling in Game 7.

Given its underlying team strength, Philadelphia probably would have advanced past Milwaukee in the play-in round anyway. That’s bad news for Rose, but good news for fans of Uncut Gems, which prominently featured that Celtics-76ers series.

In the Western Conference, meanwhile, the Spurs handled the Jazz in a sweep. Houston would have likely posed equally feeble competition.

2011-12 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Bulls 76ers 81%
Bulls Bucks 96%
Spurs Jazz 91%
Spurs Rockets 92%

2012-13 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 38-44 Bucks (19th) vs. 34-48 76ers (23rd)
  • 89 percent chance the Bucks advance
  • West: 45-37 Rockets (9th) vs. 43-39 Jazz (15th)
  • 92 percent chance the Rockets advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Not unless you care about the battle for the no. 9 seed between the 76ers and Raptors, who both finished 34-48—the worst record for any no. 9 seed in the whole decade. The West had something of a crowd in the 6-9 range, but if anything, the regular playoff structure without a play-in round made that race more compelling because the loser of that group didn’t have any chance at all to reach the playoffs, whereas with a play-in opportunity, it would.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

The Bucks’ first-round series was a yawner—a four-game sweep with four double-digit wins for the Heat. The Rockets’ first-round contest, their first with James Harden, was a bit more complicated. Harden’s former team, Oklahoma City, took a 3-0 lead before beating Houston in six games—a Pyrrhic victory after Thunder star Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus in a post-whistle collision with Patrick Beverley in Game 2.

So while the Rockets’ presence in the playoffs might not have affected Round 1, it certainly influenced Memphis’s upset over the Thunder in the next round. But, it’s worth noting, Houston was a much better team than Utah that season and likely would have won the play-in round anyway.

2012-13 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Heat Bucks 97%
Heat 76ers 99%
Thunder Rockets 88%
Thunder Jazz 97%


New play-in matchups:

  • East: 38-44 Hawks (17th) vs. 37-45 Knicks (18th)
  • 85 percent chance the Hawks advance
  • West: 49-33 Mavericks (12th) vs. 48-34 Suns (10th)
  • 83 percent chance the Mavericks advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes—in a bad way. Both conferences in the 2013-14 season saw a clear drop-off between the no. 9 and no. 10 spots, so with a play-in setup, both the Knicks and Suns would have coasted to a berth in the pre-playoff round. But the races would have been somewhat diluted if the no. 9 seeds had a fallback option instead of being forced to challenge for the no. 8 seed completely. That Western playoff race is one of the best in recent memory: Only three games separated the no. 6 from no. 9 seeds. Fighting for a top-seven or top-eight spot would have mattered, of course, but some drama would have fallen away if whichever team lost those battles would have still earned another chance to qualify.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

The 1-versus-8 meetings in the 2014 playoffs were both unexpected delights. Entering the playoffs, neither matchup seemed all that close (nor would any hypothetical matchup have been):

2013-14 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Pacers Hawks 85%
Pacers Knicks 87%
Spurs Mavericks 86%
Spurs Suns 85%

Yet against the Pacers, the Hawks led 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 before ultimately succumbing in Games 6 and 7; the series was so close that Indiana outscored Atlanta by seven points total across the seven games.

Dallas’s performance was even more surprising. The 2014 Spurs would go on to set a record for most postseason blowout wins (12 different victories by 15-plus points), including a record-setting Finals bludgeoning of Miami—but their toughest test came against Dallas in the first round. With an all-veteran starting lineup of José Calderón, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, and Samuel Dalembert, and with fellow vets Vince Carter and Devin Harris leading the bench squad, the Mavericks pushed San Antonio to seven games.

Neither no. 8 seed completed the upset chance, but it’s hard to imagine a more compelling series than those the NBA actually delivered.

2014-15 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 38-44 Nets (21st) vs. 38-44 Pacers (17th)
  • 74 percent chance the Nets advance
  • West: 45-37 Pelicans (13th) vs. 45-37 Thunder (12th)
  • 80 percent chance the Pelicans advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes. Unlike in MLB, which decides regular-season ties with play-in games, the NBA uses tiebreakers in the case of a split no. 8 seed. That sort of anticlimax appeared in both conferences in 2015, when the Nets and Pelicans qualified for the playoffs because they won their season series against the Pacers (sans the injured Paul George) and Thunder (sans the injured Kevin Durant), respectively.

With a play-in system, the Pacers and Thunder would have had the opportunity to qualify via an actual game, as opposed to predetermined tiebreakers—though that setup would have also dulled some of the drama of a fun final day to the regular season. That night, New Orleans eked out a win against San Antonio to qualify, while the Nets won and Pacers lost to send Brooklyn to the playoffs.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

After 2014’s first-round fireworks, the 1-versus-8 matchups in 2015 were much smoother sailing for the favorites. The Hawks beat the Nets in six games; Indiana would have been a tougher matchup for Atlanta, the stats say.

2014-15 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Hawks Nets 95%
Hawks Pacers 86%
Warriors Pelicans 96%
Warriors Thunder 93%

Meanwhile, Golden State swept a feisty New Orleans team, though viewers got at least one iconic Steph Curry moment out of the experience.

2015-16 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 44-38 Pistons (14th) vs. 42-40 Bulls (18th)
  • 89 percent chance the Pistons advance
  • West: 41-41 Rockets (15th) vs. 40-42 Jazz (10th)
  • 79 percent chance the Rockets advance; check out the burgeoning Houston-Utah rivalry!

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes. The Pacers and Pistons were tied for the no. 7 and 8 seeds with just two games left; the Pacers won both while the Pistons, resting much of their starting lineup, split the mostly meaningless contests. Chicago and Washington (which finished 41-41) also would have battled to the final day for the no. 9 seed.

The Western situation looks similar to a few others earlier in the decade: Just two games separated the no. 6 and no. 9 seeds in the final standings, so they all jockeyed for position down the stretch but would have had one last reprieve if a play-in structure had been in place.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

There was no drama in this set of 1-versus-8 series. Cleveland swept the Pistons, and Golden State beat the Rockets in five games, with its four wins coming by an average of 24 points.

2015-16 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Cavaliers Pistons 86%
Cavaliers Bulls 93%
Warriors Rockets 97%
Warriors Jazz 94%

2016-17 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 41-41 Bulls (14th) vs. 41-41 Heat (10th)
  • 82 percent chance the Bulls advance
  • West: 41-41 Trail Blazers (18th) vs. 40-42 Nuggets (13th)
  • 81 percent chance the Trail Blazers advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes, in a now-familiar way. Here, the East looks like the West has a few times, with just one game separating the no. 6 and no. 9 seeds. Nothing would have changed in the Western Conference: Portland clinched the no. 8 seed with two games remaining, and no other team was close to Denver in ninth place.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

In a strange season for the East, the Celtics were one of the worst no. 1 seeds ever. Indeed, led by Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Rajon Rondo, the Bulls sprung two upset wins in Boston, sparking cataclysmic concern—only for the Celtics to win four consecutive games, none of which were particularly close. Maybe Miami would have been able to pull the upset that Chicago couldn’t complete.

Speaking of not close: The Warriors beat Portland by an average of 18 points per game in their first-round sweep.

2016-17 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Celtics Bulls 68%
Celtics Heat 64%
Warriors Trail Blazers 98%
Warriors Nuggets 98%

2017-18 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 43-39 Wizards (15th) vs. 39-43 Pistons (19th)
  • 86 percent chance the Wizards advance
  • West: 47-35 Timberwolves (10th) vs. 46-36 Nuggets (11th)
  • 86 percent chance the Timberwolves advance

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes—but with complications. Let’s start in the East, where the danger of the no. 8 seed would have changed a few teams’ behavior. Entering the final night of the regular season, the 44-37 Bucks, 43-38 Heat, and 43-38 Wizards could have all finished in eighth place. But the Heat rested Goran Dragic while the Wizards rested John Wall and Otto Porter; rest was more important than seeding without the threat of the play-in round in the event of a loss.

In the West, a play-in round would have sapped so much of the magic of the serendipitous final night, when Minnesota and Denver played—and went to overtime—while tied for the no. 8 seed. With a play-in format, that meeting would have essentially been Game 1 of a best-of-three series, meaning that singular, frenetic experience wouldn’t have packed quite the same climactic punch.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

Despite a minor scare, the top-seeded Raptors survived against the Wizards, advancing in six games. The Warriors were finally removed from the West’s no. 1 spot, and Houston continued Golden State’s tradition by steamrolling its first-round opponent, in this case beating Minnesota in five games with three blowout victories in the process.

2017-18 Playoff Odds for 1-Seed vs. 8/9-Seed

1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
1-Seed 8/9-Seed Series Odds for 1-Seed
Raptors Wizards 91%
Raptors Pistons 93%
Rockets Timberwolves 88%
Rockets Nuggets 91%

2018-19 Season

New play-in matchups:

  • East: 41-41 Pistons (16th) vs. 39-43 Hornets (19th)
  • 86 percent chance the Pistons advance
  • West: No play-in, because the eighth-seeded Clippers, at 48-34, were well clear of the ninth-seeded Kings, at 39-43

Would the end of the regular season have been affected?

Yes again. The Eastern standings were a mess entering the final day in 2018-19, and would have been even more thorny with the no. 9 seed up for grabs:

6. Magic, 41-40
7. Nets, 41-40
8. Pistons, 40-41
9. Hornets, 39-42
10. Heat, 39-42

Without the play-in round, the Magic and Nets had already clinched, and Detroit did so with a simple win. The extra cutoff points would have added several layers of enjoyment and scoreboard watching.

What about the “actual” playoffs?

The Bucks swept the Pistons by a 24-point average, making for the second-largest shellacking since the first round switched to a best-of-seven format. The Bucks boasted a 95 percent chance against the Pistons, and would have held 96 percent odds versus the Hornets.

What can we learn from this history? First, play-in matchups would occur frequently; the no. 8 and no. 9 seeds were within four games of each other in 18 of 20 circumstances in the past decade.

But it’s more difficult to discern larger effects on the postseason picture. In other major American sports, lower-seeded teams routinely make deep playoff runs. Six wild-card NFL teams have won the Super Bowl. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup as a no. 8 seed in 2012. In MLB, whose wild-card system is most analogous to the new NBA plan, winners of wild-card games are 7-9 against the no. 1 seeds in the first full playoff round. The 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals both won the World Series after emerging from the play-in game.

Yet in the NBA, it’s improbable to think that a no. 8 or 9 seed might ever have that chance. The 1999 Knicks, a no. 8 seed in the shortened lockout season, are the only no. 8 seed to win more than one playoff round. More broadly, only five no. 8 seeds have won a playoff series in the 36 years of 16-team brackets; two came in the past decade, but one of those was the result of a devastating injury to the no. 1 team’s best player. (The 2011 Grizzlies also benefited from a fluke injury, as Manu Ginobili broke his arm in the Spurs’ final regular-season game. He still played five of six games against Memphis, though.)

Thus, from an actual championship perspective, the play-in round would do little more than potentially swap out the no. 1 seeds’ cannon fodder in the first round. And because the NBA standings hinge more on skill than luck, relative to other sports leagues, it’s not as if the no. 9 seeds are especially deserving of playoff bids, either. On average, the no. 9 seeds that would have appeared in a play-in round in the past decade had a losing record. The Eastern no. 9 seeds were especially porous.

Average No. 9 Seed in Play-in Round, 2010-19

Wins Losses Net Rating
Wins Losses Net Rating
All No. 9 Seeds 40.6 41.4 0.1
Eastern No. 9 Seeds 38.4 43.6 -0.9
Western No. 9 Seeds 43.4 38.6 1.3

So the play-in round wouldn’t be in place for real competitive purposes, nor for an overwhelming sense of fairness. It’d be for entertainment, plain and simple—it would add more inflection points to the standings, typically generate more meaningful games late in the regular season (while perhaps influencing tanking efforts), and artificially add games with postseason stakes before the actual postseason begins in full.

To that end, it seems that the spartan play-in round, with only two teams and minimal games, doesn’t fully embrace its own nature. A fully fledged plan centered on entertainment would involve more teams, more games, and more sudden-elimination stakes—a true Entertaining as Hell Tournament, worthy of the “tournament” moniker. The 2020 play-in round is something of a necessity born of the season’s unexpected circumstances; it’s quite possible that the next iteration would be far more expansive because, as recent history shows, entertainment is the only real consideration—and perhaps the only important consideration for an entertainment product, after all—that goes into this particular NBA proposal.