NBA Play-In Tournament is here to stay and it will help Orlando Magic grow

Ja Morant led the Memphis Grizzlies to a surprising and important Play-In Tournament win over the Golden State Warriors. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Ja Morant led the Memphis Grizzlies to a surprising and important Play-In Tournament win over the Golden State Warriors. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA could be wringing its hands over Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors bowing out of their made-for-TV, concocted Play-In Tournament.

One of their most marketable players and faces of the franchise was eliminated from playoff contention somewhat unceremoniously as the Memphis Grizzlies held on thanks to their own young star in Ja Morant in overtime to sneak into the field.

Players could be upset over the Play-In Tournament too.

LeBron James had to get himself up from an injury to play an extra game, needing a 3-pointer with a minute to play to stave off the Golden State Warriors and enter the field. He said whoever came up with the Play-In Tournament idea should be fired, despite the fact the players association agreed to the plan before the season.

It seemed more like a veteran, MVP-level player annoyed he had to go through these hoops to defend his title.

There were fair criticisms of this gimmick the NBA came up with. It is an unnatural disruption of the season. And, as exciting as the three games on the Western Conference side were, the Eastern Conference games were all largely snoozers — save for Jayson Tatum’s 50-point effort.

This might not have been the season to add extra games onto the players, as Mark Cuban seemed to point out when he expressed regret for his vote in favor of the tournament.

But this idea is not going anywhere. The competitiveness and excitement of elimination-level NBA games produced exactly what the NBA wanted — a ratings bonanza and a way to keep more teams competing later into the season.

The NBA Play-In Tournament is not going anywhere after a successful four-day event. For a team like the Orlando Magic, it could speed up their growth and return to the stage.

For a young team like the Orlando Magic, the Play-In Tournament was a double-edged sword. But even at the start of the season, it was something that could potentially benefit them. Now, it is clear the Play-In Tournament will be good for a young team like the Magic, especially as they try to make their way back to the playoffs.

The Play-In Tournament undoubtedly delivered for the NBA. Aided by the presence of superstars in LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the games in the Play-In Tournament delivered the league’s biggest ratings since the opening of the season.

It whetted the appetite for the postseason in a major way.

The problem the league was always trying to solve was to find a way to create urgency for many teams. They did not want teams easing off the gas pedal in the final weeks of the season.

The league put probably its two least valuable pieces of real estate up for grabs to make the NBA’s regular season a bit more exciting.

Since the league expanded to a 16-team playoffs format, the 8-seeds are 5-69 against the top seeds in the conference and the 7-seeds are also 5-69. It does and can happen, but it is exceptionally rare for either of these last teams to advance out of the first round.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

These last seeds are used more for young teams getting their toes wet in the postseason (like the Magic in 2019) or teams that are stalling out and falling out of the postseason (like the Magic in 2020). It is a weigh station for teams trying to figure out where they are going next.

This is to say, there is not much on the line. For these teams, getting in is about what happens next not what happens in that series.

But what happened because of the Play-In Tournament this year, more teams were involved in the season later than usual. Almost every game on the final day of the season had some playoff implication, even games involving teams that were outside the Play-In Tournament field.

In fact, it is safe to say one of the goals of the Play-In Tournament was to try to keep teams from committing to a tanking regime longer.

The Magic, who finished with the third-worst record in the league, were not eliminated from Play-In Tournament contention until game 63 (87.5-percent of the way through the season). Under an eight-team format, the Magic would have been eliminated at game 60 (83.3-percent).

That is still later in the season than normal — in the 2019 season, the 14th-place team was eliminated from the Playoffs at game 68 (82.9-percent).

That turned into three games in this shortened season. But in an 82 game season, those four percentage points gets a team to game 72. They can at least talk themselves mathematically into competing for a spot much deeper into the season.

And that is the point.

For a team at the bottom of the standings like the Magic were this season, that might be moot. The team made its decision to turn toward the bottom of the standings at the trade deadline despite still being on the periphery of the playoff chase. Orlando made its decision to restart and forego the playoff chase.

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But as Orlando begins to rebuild itself, the carrot of a Play-In Tournament, and a shorter target at No. 10 rather than No. 8, will help them stay in the Playoff conversation and play the kind of meaningful games that young teams need to grow and need to win.

If the Play-In Tournament returns next year, the Magic could very well find themselves back in the mix if they can stay healthy and players grow quicker than anticipated. It will be much easier to give themselves a chance to play meaningful games than if they were under the eight-team format.

The Magic hoped for this opportunity at the beginning of the season even when they had to defend their spot. The growth opportunities to play and win meaningful games is the goal for any young team trying to climb their way up.

It is clear the Play-In Tournament was a success in every way the NBA imagined — aside from losing Curry for a first-round series. It is going to be something that will quickly become a normal reality for the team.

The drama of these six games — even the blowouts in the Eastern Conference — provides new opportunities for the NBA to put a compelling product out to satisfy its television partners. It also clearly keeps teams involved and gives more young teams a chance to compete in Playoff-caliber games.

The Magic will benefit from this next year as they try to get back into the field.

The Play-In Tournament is hardly a goal for any team. Like winning the 7- or 8-seed, it is a weigh station for teams as they figure out their future. Undoubtedly, the Magic want to move up and getting that opportunity will be a big step for them.

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That is far away. For now, the Play-In Tournament was a league-wide success.