The effects of the NBA’s new play-in class structure

Originally posted on RealGM  |  By John Wilmes  |  Last updated 5/11/21

The NBA’s new “play-in” tournament is likely here to stay, and with it comes a tectonic shift in the league’s class structure. Where there once was 16 postseason spots guaranteed to teams that win a certain amount during the regular season, there are now 12. Where there once was 14 teams with no kind of taste of the playoffs, there will now be just 10. Where there once was… nothing… there will now be eight teams pitted against each other in single-elimination chaos, likely for the privilege of being first-round cannon fodder. All in all, it’s an expansion of the middle class paired with a contraction of the upper class. 

Some teams feel the change more than others. There are the Portland Trail Blazers, which eye a potential change at their head coaching position this summer as they hover uncertainly between the upper and middle classes with their core Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum pairing finishing its sixth season. The Boston Celtics, hit hard by COVID-19 and the consequences of a deep 2020 playoff run, are also strapped with a kind of existentialism about their franchise that might not exist if not for the new bracket arrangements. For the Washington Wizards, stricken both by the pandemic and the rushed genetic changeup of adding Russell Westbrook to their team, the new middle rung comes as a form of mercy as the Wiz have made a second-half recovery from their disastrous 2020-21 beginning. 

In the case of the New Orleans Pelicans, the new class structure is cause for red alert. With Zion Williamson setting new precedent for what a 20-year-old can do in the NBA and Brandon Ingram making last year’s Western Conference All-Star squad, a simple question presses on them: Why aren’t they better? Two and a half games out of the play-in tournament at the moment, they are unlikely to make it in and arguably behind schedule as the clock ticks toward Williamson’s surely historic free agency. After next season, the Pelicans will have to begin the offering-and-negotiating part of their relationship with their young franchise player. Multiplying stress about Williamson’s comfort level in New Orleans is that, when asked about New York City and Madison Square Garden last month, he barely stopped short of saying, “Hoooweee!!”

Late last week, Williamson was declared out indefinitely with a finger injury. Pelicans GM David Griffin called a press conference, during which he performed a bit of righteous indignation about how Zion is officiated. Griffin was both right and wrong: Zion both gets fouled more than referees acknowledge but also fouls more than referees acknowledge. Officiating him is a physics problem not much different from that of building a bridge over the spout of a volcano. He is simply built different, and calling him is the most challenging task the profession has seen since Shaquille O’Neal was around—a point of reference that Griffin touched upon in his fusillade as well.

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