NBA’s Play-In Tournament Alternates Reality

Updated: March 1, 2021
Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans

In the NBA’s attempt to create excitement, and of course extra revenue, the league doubled downed and expanded on the very popular play-in tournament idea first introduced in the bubble. Seeds nine and ten now have an opportunity to capture one of the final two playoff spots if they can make their way through a mini gauntlet at season’s end.

The idea, while exciting, has created what could be seen as an unintended outcome with more teams becoming buyers in the trade market with fewer teams willing to sell. It’s unknown if the market will inherently meet the demand as the demand is based on each team’s internal assessment. This season is wild but does its instability create opportunity?

GMs have to ask themselves if their team’s identity is more closely related to its ups or downs, how has COVID impacted the roster coupled with injuries that take place naturally. It’s not an easy job and it never will be. There are a handful of teams that might be disillusioned into thinking they should indeed go for it and make the playoffs as hopes have become the opinions of the NBA—everybody has them.

For clarity purposes, I’m not talking about the obvious title contenders or even the second tier of contenders that are a move or two away from contention—here’s looking at you Boston and Miami. This is for those teams that haven’t made the playoffs or have recently with no chance of doing anything more than a first-round exit.

Here we’ll pick out few teams from each conference who are toying with the notion of the playoffs and weigh their viability on a case-by-case scenario with a little help from basketball reference.  We’ll skip the New York Knicks who by nature of the argument should be on the list but Tom Thibodeau teams will always try to make the playoffs no matter how feeble or foolhardy the attempt, but I digress. Let’s begin.

Atlanta Hawks
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The Hawks have an antsy star on their hands in Trae Young who started complaining about losing in just his second season with the team. Travis Schlenk responded in the offseason with a smattering of transactions that were supposed to bring the roster depth and a real chance at the playoffs. Injuries to Hawks old and new have crippled the roster and anchored the team in inconsistency. Still, this is a team that needs to make the playoffs after all the money it spent. Lloyd Pierce will find his seat extremely hot if the Hawks don’t at least make the play-in tournament and have a good showing. Ultimately, this is about keeping their nutmegging three-point assassin happy and it starts with making the playoffs.

Charlotte Hornets
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After signing Gordon Hayward to a questionably-sized contract things have settled in Charlotte. LaMelo Ball is proving to be everything they could dream, Terry Rozier is in the midst of a career-season and the team has looked competitive most of the season. Without a playoff birth since 2016, the Hornets need to taste the postseason in some fashion this year. It would do wonders for Ball’s development and maybe even provide Hayward with a boost in confidence as the lead option on a team.

Chicago Bulls
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A team coached by Billy Donovan isn’t just going to roll over and the Bulls have new management in the front office. This group likely wants to make a splash and show the ownership group they made the right decisions. The question here is really what does the Bulls’ future look like? Is Zach LaVine their building block? Will they, or better yet, do they want to retain Lauri Markkanen in the offseason? Thaddeus Young holds some trade value but is playing extremely well off the bench this year—do you trade him or hold on? These are questions that need to be answered quickly but it appears as if the Bulls may want to give this roster a taste of playoff intensity to see what they’re made of. I’m not so optimistic.

Orlando Magic
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Injuries are the story for the Magic in the 20-21 season. Markelle Fultz is out for the year, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon have been in and out of the lineup (with Gordon currently out) and Cole Anthony is also currently on the shelf. If it weren’t for the All-Star play of Nikola Vucevic and some assistance for Terrence Ross off the bench this team would be sleeping with the fishes already. However, it’s time for this team to stop clinging to foolish pride and make a play for the lottery. Trade Gordon and/or Fournier and look for talent to infuse this roster for better days in the future.

Washington Wizards
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The Wizards are trying everything they can to appease their superstar Bradley Beal. Giving him a new running mate in Russell Westbrook is only recently starting to pay off, but they might have dug too deep of a hole to begin the year. Beal has pledged loyalty for this season and that’s admirable, but many think it’s only a matter of time before the Wizards have to deal him. A Beal trade this season would send shockwaves around the league but would be the truth serum this franchise needs to swallow. They aren’t likely to get into the playoffs and score 140 each game to pull off an upset of a higher seed and that’s a reality they need to face.

Houston Rockets
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Cue the Kanye West “All falls down” for Houston as their season is currently in a tailspin. The wheels have fallen off the wagon ever since Christian Wood went down with his second ankle injury of the year. This is another team that is suffering an identity crisis unsure of which version of themselves is real. Are they the team that showed the league’s best defense (for a time) after the James Harden trade or are they Wood-less losers of ten straight? John Wall and Victor Oladipo have looked good when healthy but Oladipo should probably be flipped again for long-term stability. Not to mention the countless contenders salivating over the potential to acquire P.J. Tucker. Someone hug Stephen Silas and tell him it isn’t fault—look to build something more stable in the coming seasons.

Memphis Grizzlies
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Not much to see here. This is a team that should be gunning for the playoffs after being set up mafia-style not to make it in the bubble. This season they’ve battled numerous injuries including the one that could have sent their season into never-never land after Ja Morant turned in his ankle in Brooklyn. Yet they preserved. Keep in mind Justise Winslow only recently joined the fray after being acquired literally a year ago. Jaren Jackson Jr. is gearing up for a return sometime after the all-star break while Kyle Anderson is enjoying his finest season as a pro in the meantime. Nobody believes in the Grizz like themselves and a playoff appearance would be a great character builder.

New Orleans Pelicans
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The Pelicans have Zion Williamson in case you haven’t heard, and the league wants to see its next star on the biggest stage. The Pelicans have some roster construction issues and a plethora of draft picks to make a move. JJ Reddick is clearly available and Lonzo Ball could also be had for the right price. The Pels don’t have the same pressure on them yet from Williamson that Trae Young put on Atlanta, but Stan Van Gundy didn’t come out of the broadcast booth to toil in the lottery either. The time is now.

Oklahoma City Thunder
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OKC’s GM Sam Presti hunts draft picks like Thanos hunted infinity stones, it is inevitable. Despite what seems like his best effort to tank for this loaded draft class, the team has been surprisingly competent. I think we’re awaiting a hold my beer moment from Presti as he’s rumored to be shopping Al Horford, George Hill and Mike Muscala for additional draft compensation. Gutting this roster of any veteran presence might finally do the trick and send the Thunder towards the basement with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Sacramento Kings
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Owners of the league’s longest playoff drought, the Sacramento Kings are anxious for a whiff of extra games past the regular season. But should they be this year? Without question 14 years is a long time. But like a few others on this list, if they can flip wanted players into assets for the future wouldn’t that be better than getting in and losing in four or five games? Harrison Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica, and Hassan Whiteside are names people have an interest in. If the Kings are really feeling froggy they could test the market on Marvin Bagley selling him as a reclamation project to would-be buyers. Patience is a lot to ask for here especially after awarding De’Aaron Fox a max deal that starts next season. Plus this team hasn’t been in the playoffs since the Bush administration so don’t be surprised to see them stick things out.

All of these teams have hope but hope can’t become the death of duty—especially if the talent isn’t there. Creating WandaVision-like realities isn’t a safe space for general managers to live in, let’s see who snaps out of it first.



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