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The NBA Play-In Tournament and its draft consequences, explained

Here is everything you wanted to know about the Play-In tournament, how it could affect the NBA Draft Lottery, and where the Wizards fit into it.

2020 NBA Draft Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Washington Wizards, barring a sudden collapse, will be in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament this year. If they can perform well enough, we may see them make the Round of 16 in this year’s NBA Playoffs. Here’s everything I currently (think I) know about the 2021 Play-In Tournament and subsequent Draft Lottery consequences.

Play-In Tournament Format

There will be a total of six play-in tournament games - 3 in the East, and 3 in the West:

Dates, back-to-back, home-court

The 7th ranked team will play at most two games, both on its home court. In general, the lower-ranked team will travel to play the higher-ranked team in each of the above match-ups. There will be no back-to-back games. The first game will take place on May 18 or 19. The second game a team plays will take place May 20 or 21. Overall the six games will be spread over four nights to maximize TV attention nationwide.

Can a 9th or 10th climb up to the 7th seed in the Round of 16?

No. The 7th seed belongs to the winner of the game between the 7th and 8th seeds, hosted by the former. After that game is played, the loser of the 7/8 game plays the winner of the 9/10 game for the 8th seed. Since the Wizards are currently 10th in the East, the highest seed they could get in the NBA Playoffs is the 8th one.

What are the draft consequences of the tournament?

This is a bit confusing. Normally, a team finishing 9th or 10th in its conference is eligible for the NBA Lottery Draft. Not this year! At least, under some circumstances: one of those teams will be eligible but the other could lose its eligibility if it is overly eager to make it into the playoffs (sound #soWizards?). Here is how it will work:

If a 9th or 10th seeded team manages to win both of its games in the tournament it will no longer participate in the NBA Draft Lottery. Similarly, to sneak into the Draft Lotery, a 7th or 8th seeded team will need to lose both of its games in the tournament.

What if the 9th or 10th seeded teams win exactly one game? In that case, the team is still lottery-bound and its lottery odds are in a sense unaffected and are still calculated based on its regular season (72 game) winning percentage.

Similar logic applies, say, to a 7th seeded team that dropped to 8th after the play-in tournament: the picks it owns in the Draft (in the range 15-60) will still be ordered according to the regular-season record.

Should the Play-In Tournament stay after this year?

There are some famous critics of this format, like Mark Cuban, Luka Doncic, and LeBron James. There are also proponents, surely the likes of Tommy Sheppard and Scotty Brooks since the Wizards are benefiting from this scenario. Recently, our colleagues at Pounding the Rock, SB Nation’s Spurs blog voiced some thoughts about the format in a thoughtful roundtable, Mark Barrington voiced the following opinion:

I understand what Luka is saying, and Mark Cuban has some great points. But the fact is that the NBA is an entertainment league and the play-in is great for keeping many more fan bases interested late in the season as only a few teams will be eliminated before the last few weeks. The downside is the additional stress and injury risk.

The truth is that none of the teams in the 7-10 play-in range have any realistic chance to win a title, so a coach that mortgages a team’s future to make it into that range is either worried about losing their job or is a poor coach. Those two things are often correlated. Teams that are at the edge of making the playoffs need to rest and conserve their players, because the promise of an additional game or two, or even a series where they would likely get swept by a top seed, isn’t worth endangering the long-term health of the players.

What is your take? Let us know in the comments.