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Despite LeBron's Criticism, the Play-In Tourney Is Here to Stay

Amid the Lakers' recent struggles, LeBron is not happy about the NBA’s play-in tournament. Plus, why Scott Brooks isn’t wrong about Russell Westbrook’s impact at the point guard position.

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Back in February, with objections over the NBA’s decision to hold an All-Star Game simmering, LeBron James turned up the heat. “I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game,” James said. Just like that, a minor problem became a major headache. James’s words served as rocket fuel for the discussion. A debate previously relegated to basketball-centric websites suddenly earned column inches in The New York Times and Washington Post, with wall-to-wall coverage on debate shows across networks.

On Sunday, hours after the Lakers' loss to the Raptors, James stirred the NBA pot once again. For months, the merits of the play-in tournament, the four teams per conference miniplayoff that will determine the final two postseason seeds, have been argued. Some, like Mavericks star Luka Dončić, have contended that a 72-game season should be enough to determine a playoff field. James, it seems, agrees with him. “Whoever came up with that s---,” said James, “needs to be fired.”

No heads will roll at Olympic Tower, of course. And why would they? The play-in, in all its forms, has been a success. Last season with the NBA restarting in Florida, the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns and Spurs battled for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. This season, Memphis, the Warriors and San Antonio are within one game of the eighth seed in the West. In the East, the Wizards, Pacers and Hornets are within two games of one another in the loss column.

Think Washington is down on the play-in? In mid-January, their season was in shambles. Seven players tested positive for COVID-19. Team facilities were shut down. Players were isolated. Dāvis Bertāns spent two weeks with an Xbox at a Residence Inn. When games resumed, the Wizards, still sluggish from the layoff, dropped four straight.

Another season, Washington might have considered joining the race to the bottom. Instead, with the play-in tournament offering hope, the Wizards have pressed forward. They picked up Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline to reinforce the frontcourt. Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal look more comfortable playing together by the game. Rui Hachimura, injured for much of January, has been a consistent scoring presence since. Washington is not only a threat to make the playoffs but will be a nightmare matchup for any top seed (hello, Brooklyn) if they get there.

And what about Golden State? The Warriors' title hopes were dashed when Klay Thompson tore his Achilles before the season. But Golden State has battled through the adversity to position itself for a shot at the play-in tournament. You think the NBA wouldn’t benefit from a couple of extra high-stakes games of Stephen Curry? Think the playoffs wouldn’t be better with Curry, an MVP candidate, in them? Think ratings, which have bottomed out this season, wouldn’t be juiced by a few one-and-done games early in the playoffs? Ask MLB how that has worked out.

And the downside is … what, exactly? It’s worth noting that both Dončić and James were hovering around the No. 7 seed when they criticized the play-in tournament. It’s fair to argue that the No. 7 seed shouldn’t be involved in the play-in, that it should be reserved for the eighth and ninth seeds, and even then some team executives have argued there should be a game only if the ninth seed is within a few games of No. 8. “The play-in is great, especially for the young teams who have something to play for,” a team executive told Sports Illustrated. “But you don’t want to devalue the regular season too much.”

Adding games to an already COVID-19-challenged schedule is an issue, perhaps more than the NBA anticipated before the season. (Side note: The NBA should have anticipated COVID-19 causing a wave of early problems; it should have spent the first half of the season in a bubble; and it would have protected the integrity of a season that for the first two months was a mess … but that’s a discussion for another day). But long-term, some version of the play-in will be part of the NBA’s schedule. The tournament received unanimous support from the league’s board of governors last fall and has a fierce advocate in Adam Silver, who told SI last summer that he believed the play-in was “a great addition to the league.”

“I do see this as something we would embrace going forward,” Silver said. “As you know I’ve been talking about it for a while. I’m not sure if this would be the exact format going forward. But this is something we’d like to see stay.”

For years, the NBA has looked for ways to enhance the regular season, to whittle down the number of teams tanking toward the end of it. Flattening the lottery odds, which the NBA revised in 2019, helped. The play-in will help more. James’s voice brings players' issues with the play-in to the forefront. But it will do nothing to change it.

The Case for Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

Shortly after Washington’s 154–141 win over Indiana, a game headlined by Russell Westbrook’s astonishing 14-point, 21-rebound, 24 assist effort, Wizards coach Scott Brooks set social media on fire by saying this about his All-Star guard:

“I used to always say he's going to probably go down as the third-best point guard ever, but I think he's passed one and he's going to go down as probably the second-best,” said Brooks. “One is obviously Magic [Johnson]. What he does, there's no point guard that has ever done it. Nobody. Nobody.”

"There might be some that shoot better, there might be some that probably can do certain things better. But there's nobody in the history of the game that can do what he does throughout the stat sheet. That guy is as high as level of a player this league has ever seen.”

Brooks isn’t wrong about Westbrook’s impact at the position. Make a list of players with 20-rebound/20-assist games in NBA history. It won’t take long. Westbrook, who did it for the second time on Monday, is one. Wilt Chamberlain is the other. If Stephen Curry revolutionized point guard with his shooting, Westbrook has done it with speed and power.

Is he the second-best all-time? Curry would make a modern argument against that. Go back further and John Stockton and Isiah Thomas would like a word. Bob Cousy, still around at age 92, would probably have an opinion. Point guard is among the NBA’s most talent-stocked positions, making the debate a highly subjective one.

(I texted Brooks after the game about his Westbrook comments, he responded with a lengthy list of ex-Celtics point guards, including John Bagley and Dana Barros, that I, a Boston-native, would probably take over Westbrook. It’s worth noting that Brooks himself is technically an ex-Celtic point guard, having spent five glorious days with Boston after being traded there in 1997 before being summarily released.)

Debating Westbrook’s legacy is polarizing, with critics (Inefficient! Doesn’t win!) equaling the number of Brooks-like supporters. But Brooks is right about Westbrook’s statistical impact. His three straight seasons—seasons!—of averaging a triple double is the NBA’s 56-game hitting streak, a record that will never, ever be broken. He is one of the NBA’s best teammates (Bradley Beal recently called Westbrook “probably” the best teammate he has ever had, echoing a statement many have made) with a work ethic that has rubbed off on many, including the young Wizards. Brooks may have been a little hyperbolic with his praise of Westbrook on Monday. But he wasn’t that far off.

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