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Can the NBA Pull Off Play-in Games While Keeping its Superstars Happy?

All eyes will be on the court this week, but another matchup of competing NBA interests will play out behind the scenes: the league vs. the players.

This year marks the first official test run of the new play-in format for the NBA postseason, and whether you’re the league, the players, or a TV partner, the stakes are high.

The league has long been looking for a way to fix the problem of teams tanking for draft picks, boost ratings and revenue, and keep fans excited. With the launch of its first full postseason Play-in Tournament on Tuesday — highlighted by a titanic Lakers vs. Warriors matchup Wednesday — there’s a new and innovative opportunity to do exactly that.

But given the NBA’s status as the ultimate athlete empowerment league, figuring out how to thread all these needles while keeping the players happy is not going to be an easy task.

After a scaled-down version of the play-in concept proved popular last summer in the Orlando bubble, the NBA now aims to see just how much extra juice a broader setup featuring four teams per conference provides in the form of gate receipts and TV viewership.

The league’s Board of Governors conditionally approved the format for this year only; as of now, it remains unclear how the NBA will ultimately gauge the success of the framework and what that means for future seasons. But in the near term, the league absolutely struck it rich with a play-in matchup featuring the LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers against scoring champ Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

But not every superstar is delighted with the added postseason wrinkle, an issue that could creates a serious and ongoing headache for the NBA.

Player Empowerment Put to the Test

King James, whose Lakers occupy the West’s No. 7 seed, is the highest-profile voice to speak against the concept. With his team in danger of a potential early exit, he’s not a big fan. But LeBron isn’t the only superstar to sound the alarm.

Luka Doncic, one of the long-term heirs to the NBA throne, let it be known that he likewise doesn’t see the point of the play-in tournament despite his Mavericks not being in that bracket themselves.

“I don’t understand the idea of the play-in [tournament],” Doncic said. “You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point of that.”

Despite being a part of a unanimous vote of owners to approve the new concept, Mavs owner Mark Cuban concurred with Doncic, expressing his concerns with how things have played out in reality.

“In hindsight, this approach was an enormous mistake,” he said. As the league celebrated having more down-the-stretch regular season games that “matter,” Cuban has been quick to point to the players’ increased risk of wear and tear thanks to an inability for scheduled rest after playoff seeds in previous years would have been locked in.

The League Digs in

Despite the pushback, the league is absolutely steadfast in its support of play-in games. Still reeling from over $1 billion in lost revenue from 2019-20 season thanks to COVID and a 10% drop in television ratings so far this season, the league needs as many marketable, made-for-TV activations as possible.

Per an in-depth analysis conducted by ESPN last October, the NBA was facing a $4 billion revenue shotfall — nearly 40% of normal projections — if the season played all the way through without paying fans in attendance. Spectators have begun to return, but plenty of teams are still playing entirely without fans.

But this all-new tournament, there’s some newfound momentum and marketable narratives abound.

At least according to the guy considered to be the face of the concept.

Evan Wasch, the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Strategy and Analytics and recently anointed “play-in guy,” said national TV ratings were up 25% in April from the previous month. The boost was driven in large part by the intrigue surrounding play-in teams, reports Ben Golliver of The Washington Post.

“The league’s hope is that the play-in will produce up to six highly competitive showcase games as a lead-in to the postseason,” Golliver writes. “Television ratings tend to spike for Game 7s, and a do-or-die showdown between some combination of James, Curry, Doncic, and Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard should attract lots of eyeballs.”

Wasch, who took the high road when responding to James’ comments, said the league welcomes feedback from players.

“But on balance, we believe the Play-in Tournament offers more benefits than downsides,” he said.

So, what will happen next?

In this new era of player empowerment where a player’s influence may outweigh a seat at the bargaining table, will these frustrations come back to bite the NBA in its bid to revamp the postseason experience? Will a couple of disgruntled superstars throw a wrench in the idea after only one year?

Or will the NBA decide to scrap the idea after realizing that adding more teams and a few additional games to the playoff experience is either not worth the trouble or simply unnecessary after sold-out crowds are the norm again?

It all comes down to how the actual games play out. If things go according to plan and LeBron’s Lakers and Steph’s Warriors are both participating in the first round of the postseason, this is a no harm, no foul situation.

But if either one of those massive brands falls flat and gets eliminated by the small-market Grizzlies or Spurs, the NBA might find itself wishing that tanking was the biggest problem it had to deal with.

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