Should We Tweak the Play-In?

Is the play-in game bad for the NBA?  Not too many people have directly said that it is.  In fact, Draymond Green called the concept “lit.”  The result of the Western Conference play-in, however, reveals a potential issue.  The 36-46 Pelicans made the playoffs over the 42-40 Clippers, when New Orleans was helped a bit by the Clipps losing Paul George to a particularly poorly timed case of COVID.  Injuries/COVID are facts that all teams have to deal with at all times.  Nevertheless, there is a tension underlying the play-in concept: the attempts to keep the middling teams from tanking definitely risks devaluing regular season success of the seven or eight seeds, which would otherwise have breezed into the playoffs under the previous rules.  The play-in seemed very reasonable in the East, where the seven through ten seeds were separated by one game. 

Personally, I like the play-in concept but there is potential to for problems around the margins.  What if the gap between the seven and eight seeds and the nine and ten seeds was much larger?  New Orleans was six games worse than the Clipps.  The Pelicans leapfrogging the Clipps feels a little wrong but certainly not absurd. 

I thought we could use the past as a guide to see where the typical nine or ten seeds have stacked up in the pre-play-in era, as well as any other interesting tidbits that pop up.  Before we dive into the data, it should be noted that our inquiry will start effective the 1995-96 season, when the Grizz and Raptors debuted (there were only 27 teams before that season, with only 13 in the Western Conference).  The inquiry stops after 2018-19 because the 2019-20 season had that mini-play-in during the Bubble.  With those caveats in my mind, here’s what we found:

-The average nine seed in the East won 38.7 games and the average ten seed won 36 games (we pro-rated team wins for an 82-game season for the two lockout shortened seasons).  Those numbers are lower than the NBA would want from play-in competition but not so low that it would be worth abandoning the experiment.

-The average nine seed in the West won 41.4 games and the average ten seed won 37 games.  This is a little better.  It is also worth noting that that these stats were compiled without the carrot of a play-in game.  It is conceivable that the win totals would be a bit higher with that incentive.

Where things get really interesting is looking at individual seasons and there are some real interesting outliers:

-In 1996-97, the bottom of the Western Conference was so bad that the Kings (34-48) and the Warriors (30-52) would’ve made a hypothetical play-in.  A middling Clipper team (36-46) led by Darrick Martin and Loy Vaught was the eight seed, so it’s not so bad that they could’ve been bumped off. 

-The West was even worse in 1997-98.  The last gasp of the Hakeem/Barkley/Drexler Rockets made the eight seed at 41-41 (they were actually beating Utah in the playoffs until Barkley hurt his elbow). At the nine seed were the terrible Kings (27-55) and the worst tenth seed ever, the 20-62 Mavs (-6.33 SRS).  The gap between these teams and the Rockets was so great that it seems absurd that Houston could have even theoretically lost out on the playoffs in a play-in, even if the risk was remote.   Still, it could’ve happened if they had used the play-in system.  All the Kings needed was a badly timed injury to a Rocket star coupled with a hot game from Mitch Richmond.  This would’ve been a nightmare result for the NBA.

-In the East, the worst ten seed in a full season was the 2009-10 Pacers, who were 32-50 and big step below the nine seeded Raptors.  In a partial season in 2011-12, the ten seed Pistons were slightly worse (25-41, which projects to 31 wins).

-The only Eastern Conference nine seed to exceed .500 was the 1998-99 Hornets who were 26-24 and just missed the playoffs to a 27-23 Knick team that had that memorable run to the Finals.

-The play-in would’ve been quite fair for the 2006-07 Warriors and 2013-14 Suns, who missed the playoffs despite going 48-34.  The 2008-09 Suns were 46-36 but missed the playoffs.  The ten seed Warriors, however, were 29-53.  That hypothetical nine-ten play-in game seems a bit absurd.  (The 2018-19 Nuggets also missed the playoffs with 46 wins).

In all, the play-in game is an improvement over the old system.  The data shows that the nine/ten seeds are historically good enough to overcome most of the misgivings we have about letting a blah team have a puncher’s chance at the playoffs.  We do see some scenarios where the play-in breaks down when teams are so bad that their presence in the play-in wouldn’t have passed the straight face test.  The NBA should set a modest minimum win total (perhaps 33 games) under which a nine or ten seed forfeits its eligibility for the play-in.  There would be some potential bad unintended consequences (most notably a team could tank its way out of the play-in) but I think the alternative of having a joke play-in game, while unlikely, would be worse.