Could NBA Play-In Games Become Permanent?

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Every weekday, SI’s Chris Mannix will check-in with his Bubble Bits, a quick hit on something notable from inside the NBA’s campus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla – By any measurement, the NBA’s decision to create a play-in series has been a resounding success. On Thursday, the penultimate day of the league’s resumed season, three teams played in meaningful, win-or-go home level games. The Suns knocked off Dallas, Memphis edged the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Bucks and Portland won a nail biter against the Nets. It was close to midnight when the two teams that will play for the Western Conference’s last playoff spot were known.

Adopting the play-in game permanently is a no brainer … isn’t it? The end of the regular season is generally abysmal, with teams out of the playoff picture often focused more on improving its lottery odds than winning games. If teams believed they could force a play-in series by creeping within four games of the No. 8 seed, suddenly the final month of the season would become more meaningful.

“I do see this as something we would embrace going forward,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Sports Illustrated. “As you know I’ve been talking about it for a while. We saw this as an opportunity to institute a form of it. I’m not sure if this would be the exact format going forward. But this is something we’d like to see stay.”

Indeed, the NBA has floated the idea of a play-in tournament as recently as last fall, as part of a broader proposal to create a 78-game regular season and an in-season, financially incentivized tournament. At the end of the regular season, the final four teams in each conference would compete for the final two seeds.

The proposal didn’t go anywhere but Silver, clearly, would like to see at least the play-in series be made permanent. Said Silver, “I think it would be a great addition to the league.”

That feeling, however, isn’t widely shared. The pushback is that the NBA already has an 82-game season to decide the playoff teams. And there is the issue of the top seed, having played all year to earn that spot, having less time to prepare for a first round opponent.

“The play-in format is exciting,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “[But] I think with 82 games, that in itself warrants somebody getting in or not. So if I had to vote, I would vote no.”

Said Frank Vogel, “I’ll leave that in Adam Silver’s hands. They do a great job of being innovative and trying to make the game better in any way they can. I typically am a traditionalist … but I’ll leave that in the league’s hands.

Both Brown and Vogel acknowledged the buzz the play-in series has generated, and that may be all that matters. Brown said the dip in quality of play is noticeable in the final month of the season; giving teams a reason to play at the highest level could change that. As Silver suggested, tweaks could be made. Instead of four games separating the final two teams, it could be whittled down to two. Either way, the play-in series could be here to stay.

· The Athletic reported that the NBA and NBPA are in “serious talks” for the so called Delete Eight—the eight teams not involved with the NBA restart—to have in-market bubble workouts in September. Several teams have been laying the groundwork for getting players back in before the end of the month, sources told SI. Last week, Michele Roberts, the NBPA’s Executive Director, told SI that the only way she would sign off on these workouts is if they had the exact same safety protocols as the Florida bubble.

“It's about the bubble,” Roberts said. “What I've said from day one is absolutely I don't want our guys walking out in public gyms because I absolutely and firmly believe that our teams can create safe spots, safe spaces in the ten facilities. Our guys should be able to work out together and individually, and there's a plan for that. It's called a bubble. And so that's what I've endorsed from day one. It's obviously not something that's been resolved, it's still in discussion.”

“The league together with the PA, together with our experts spent many months coming up with the safest way to resume, practice and play, and we agreed we'd found it. To deviate from that protocol and suggest that, well, what's safe in Orlando doesn't have to be the case outside of Orlando is unacceptable. And it's just completely inconsistent with what we have convinced ourselves, we convinced our players was the only way to do this. And yeah, I worry a great deal about our guys, especially those guys, especially those who have not been able to compete for many, many months now. And we need to be coming up with opportunities for them to do that. And the protocol for doing that is right in front of us. It's called a bubble. So let's do it.”

· With players from remaining teams to be allowed to bring guests into the bubble next month, the league sent a memo outlining who will be allowed in. Among the details: No “casual” guests, which includes anyone “known by the player only through social media or an intermediary.” Said one team executive who reviewed the memo, “Good luck enforcing this.” It’s a little strange to see the league crack down, especially since anyone entering the bubble will have to go through the same strict protocols to get in. Besides, is any of it really enforceable? Cracked another team exec, “There could be some really attractive family members in there.”

· The Bulls decision to fire Jim Boylen raised eyebrows for its timing— Arturas Karnisovas, Chicago’s top basketball exec, has been on the job for four months. But there’s a reason the team waited this long. Karnisovas was clear—he wanted time to evaluate Boylen. And with no other coaching openings—the Knicks job was available, but it was widely known that they liked Tom Thibodeau, and Chicago wasn’t going after Thibs—the Bulls could afford to be patient. But with the seeding games wrapping up, that dynamic changed. Brooklyn and New Orleans could have coaching openings. In the coming weeks, Philadelphia and Houston could, too. Firing Boylen now allows Chicago to get a jump on the interview process. Expect former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson to get a long look.