It's Hard to Feel Too Sorry for the Mavericks

Luka Dončić and Mark Cuban knew what they signed up for this season. Their complaints about a play-in game won't garner much sympathy.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Luka Dončić and Mark Cuban were right: The NBA’s new play-in tournament is problematic. Unfair, even. At least, for them.

With a month left to play, the modestly talented Mavericks (30–25) are slotted seventh in the ultra-tough Western Conference. In the past, that’s an automatic playoff berth. But not this year.

Under the new play-in format, the teams finishing 7th through 10th in each conference will compete for the final two playoff spots: 7 plays 8, while 9 plays 10. The winner of the 7/8 game earns the seventh seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of 9/10 to determine the eighth seed. (The loser of 9/10 is eliminated.)

One misstep, one hiccup, one bad shooting night, and the seventh-best team of the regular season could miss the playoffs entirely. Gasp.

“You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs,” Dončić said last week.

His concerns were quickly amplified by Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner, who in an interview with ESPN called the play-in format (which he voted for) “an enormous mistake,” given the pandemic-warped, unusually compressed NBA schedule.

Their complaints are understandable—albeit transparently self-serving. Dallas has lost 56 player-games this season to coronavirus protocols (either infection or contact tracing), the most in the league. That includes nine games each for starters Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Richardson, 11 games for starter Maxi Kleber, and a combined 12 games for key reserves Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell (per Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com).

The Mavericks went 3–8 during the worst of it, in January. They’ve gone 22–13 since then—the fourth-best mark in the West in that span—but that coronavirus-induced swoon put a severe crimp in the Mavs’ record.

So yes, sure, the Mavs are a clear victim of misfortune.

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But so are the Raptors (24–34), who have lost 44 player-games to COVID-19 protocols—and were forced to play this entire season in Tampa, denying them any comforts of home.

So are the Heat (29–28), who have lost 49 player-games to COVID-19 protocols—including the loss of star Jimmy Butler for 10 games in January, going 2–8 in his absence.

So are the Wizards (23–33), who were effectively shut down for two weeks in January because of infections and contact tracing, and had an NBA-leading six games postponed as a result.

So are the Grizzlies (29–26), who are tied with the Wizards for the most games postponed.

So are the Timberwolves (15–42), who have lost 37 player-games to the protocols, including 13 by star Karl-Anthony Towns.

And so are the Celtics (31–26), who have lost 49 player-games to the protocols—with star Jayson Tatum still feeling the effects of the coronavirus, two months after missing five games in January. Tatum has been up and down since returning and recently revealed he’s using an inhaler before games.

And though it’s hard to draw a direct correlation, you could say the Lakers (LeBron James, Anthony Davis), Nuggets (Jamal Murray), Nets (Kevin Durant), Trail Blazers (CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkić) and 76ers (Joel Embiid) have all been severely impacted by injuries that—perhaps—could be blamed in part on the compressed schedule and the historically short offseason.

“To be honest, this is probably the most un-pure year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of,” the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet told reporters on Saturday. “It’s pretty much all about business this year, on every level.”

Every team has been impacted by the weirdness of this season, albeit some more than others. Everyone has an equal right to complain. Also, not one of them has a right to complain, because this is what they all wanted—the owners, the players and league officials: The short offseason. The compressed, 72-game schedule. The decision to start in late December, even as infections were spiking.

None of this was unilaterally imposed by the NBA. Every detail was negotiated with the players association. And everyone had a good reason—in fact, several billion good reasons—for doing so. All basketball-related income is split 50-50 between the players and owners. So everyone had incentive to get the new season going, and quickly, even though last season ended on Oct. 11.

Was that fair to the Lakers and Heat, who had barely two months off between the Finals and opening night? Was it fair to Denver and Boston, who as conference finalists also had incredibly short offseasons? Was it fair to leave eight teams out of the bubble last summer, denying them the chance to compete and develop their players?

Here’s a thought: There is no “fair” during a pandemic. So any complaints ring a little hollow.

Everyone knew the risks when they agreed to this schedule. But the NBA is, after all, a business, as we’ve once again been starkly reminded. Money rules the day.

Or as VanVleet eloquently put it, the NBA combines “the pure love and joy” of basketball “mixed with a billion-dollar industry. And I think this year the industry side is taking precedent over some of the love and joy.”

We spent months debating whether the NBA’s bubble season deserved an asterisk. But this season arguably has been far more distorted—by infections and quarantines and injuries to superstars, by game postponements and by scheduling quirks, both planned and unplanned.

The play-in tournament—which the league is using on a one-year trial basis—is a clear net positive. It’s given teams a little extra cushion amid the chaos. The race for the 10th spot means more teams are involved in the playoff chase right now, which means their fan bases are still engaged, too.

Viewed through the lens of a single team—battling to avoid the seventh or eighth spots amid a historically warped season, the play-in might look unjust. But it’s good for the league at large.

As for the Mavs? If they can’t stomach the indignity of a play-in, I have a simple solution: Finish sixth.

Lukewarm take of the week: About that seventh seed …

While we’re on the subject: It’s almost comical to be arguing about the sanctity of the seventh seed, in a league where the lower seeds are essentially cannon fodder.

Since 1984 when the NBA adopted the current playoff format, the seventh and eighth seeds have identical 5–68 records. That’s 10 upsets in 146 first-round series, spread across 36 years. And most of those upsets happened when the first round was still a best-of-five affair.

Since 2003 when the NBA went to best-of-seven, only one seventh seed has pulled an upset: the Spurs defeating the Mavericks in 2010. There have been three upsets by an eighth seed: the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007, the Grizzlies over the Spurs in 2011 and the 76ers over the Bulls in 2012.

And that Sixers victory was only possible because Bulls superstar Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the series. Otherwise, we’re talking about three total upsets by seventh and eighth seeds in the best-of-seven era.

There are ancillary benefits to making the playoffs, of course: gate receipts, fan excitement, postseason experience for younger players, an added sheen of relevance. But the best-of-seven format all but guarantees a victory for the top seeds.

And the teams jockeying for seventh and eighth are effectively competing to be a warmup act.

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