The 2020-21 season has been a bit of a slog. The schedule has been brutal on teams. Fans are only just now starting to populate arenas again. Several stars have missed significant time with injuries.
Things could be looking up for NBA fans, though. The regular season is entering the home stretch, with just under a month until the playoffs. The postseason chase is heating up, and the play-in tournament promises to add a new wrinkle of excitement to the final weeks. So who and what are we excited to see in the final month?
The second part of this week’s NBA roundtable takes a look at the new play-in format and some other teams and players we’re looking forward to watching down the stretch. USA TODAY Sports’ Matt Eppers moderated the discussion with a panel of NBA experts from around the USA TODAY Network: Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina of USA TODAY Sports, Evan Barnes of the Commercial Appeal and Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman.
Eppers: I wanted to start with the play-in tournament. Jeff and Mark had a recent story about not all teams and players being thrilled about it. How do we feel about it? As fans of the game, are you guys looking forward to the new format?
Medina: Nothing about this season is ideal because of the compressed nature of the schedule, the quick turnaround after the bubble and games being played in front of little to no fans. Those caveats aside, the play-in tournament is a great idea. It creates a lot more competition toward the end of the season and prevents tanking from being as pervasive. Just imagine in less than a month Steph Curry and the Warriors might be fighting for a playoff spot for two games. That would be entertaining. That format also explains why the early part of the bubble was so good.
I do understand the concerns Mark Cuban raised specifically to this season. But in normal seasons, the play-in tournament will and should stay.
Luka Doncic and the Mavericks and Steph Curry and the Warriors are locked in the thick of the Western Conference play-in race.
Mussatto: I totally understand the lack of enthusiasm about it from some teams and players, but it will make for an intriguing finish to what’s been a bit of a slog of a regular season. I watched the Wizards last night, and they’ve won five in a row and are right in the play-in mix. If Brooklyn passes Philadelphia, imagine how fun it would be to watch Russell Westbrook and the Wizards fight to play Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Nets? Here in OKC that would draw plenty of attention.
Barnes: First off, kudos to Mark and Jeff for that great story and getting reactions. But me personally, I thought the play-in tournament was more short-term convenience than long-term solution. Great idea for the bubble. Good idea this year. But not something I wanted for the 82-game schedule. It’s almost like MLB adding that play-in game to recreate an organic Game 163 a few years ago. Does it create buzz? Sure. Does it help teams like the Grizzlies? Absolutely in giving them meaningful games this late.
I agree with Joe that it’s added more intrigue to end the season. The Grizzlies have embraced it and so have their fans. But I can see where Cuban is coming from. The play-in tournament hurts the 7 seed the most and I guess we’ll see how it plays out. Personally, I think it’s been a great two-year experiment that’s served its usefulness and we should enjoy it as it’s here while doubting if it should continue.
Zillgitt: I think the play-in format is here to stay. At least for a few seasons. When the league introduces a major change, it is reluctant to pull back quickly. Now, after a few seasons, and teams are unhappy, then the NBA will revisit. I like it. I like seeing the Wizards try to win, and same with Golden State and Chicago. As long as lottery odds are determined the way they are, there will always be some tanking. But this helps curtail some of it. And I like how it puts pressure on teams to avoid 7-10 or 9-10. It makes more games meaningful and that’s one reason the league likes it.
Medina: I also do understand the pushback from some traditionalists. Kings coach Luke Walton told me he prefers for teams to be awarded for what they have done in the 82-game schedule. But for a variety of reasons, the regular season has become devalued and the play-in tournament is one way at least to reduce the severity of that problem.
Zillgitt: Not to go all Luka on you Mark, but he said the opposite! He said the play-in game devalued the 72-game regular season! I’m kidding of course. And let’s not pretend these teams aren’t just self-interested.
Medina: Haha, yes. You can look at it that way. I was more describing how much the regular season has been devalued from how well teams play + how much fans tune in. And that captures full circle the pros and cons of this proposal.
Barnes: Do you think this brings value to the full season, though? Maybe for the 7-10 teams but what about the top six? That drama is still there but is adding a wild card changing how we view the full 72/82? I’m not sure for every team. For those four and the contenders? I think so in a way, but so would a regular playoff race for the 8 seed.
Eppers: As Mark said, the prospect of Steph Curry and the Warriors playing for the 7 and/or 8 seed is pretty tantalizing. I’m on board for any situation that has them playing high-stakes basketball in May again. Steph is on such an incredible heater right now, he’s appointment viewing for the rest of the season regardless.
Zillgitt: Any chance to get more Steph this season is good enough reason to support the play-in game.
Medina: And Luka’s point mirrors exactly Walton’s point. Teams should be rewarded for what they do in a full season, not a play-in tournament. I would counter, though, that’s why teams should do what they can to be even higher in the standings so that they’re not vulnerable as a 7, 8, 9 or 10 seed. The other reality is this for the seventh seeds. If you can’t win one game in a play-in tournament, what makes you think you can win a seven-game series against a No. 2 seed? If you can’t win two games in a play-in tournament, what makes you think you can win a seven-game series against a No. 1 seed?
Barnes: True. I guess we still get to watch Steph either way, right? I’m going to cherish this last month regardless if there’s extra games in May. Call me a traditionalist while I appreciate how much fun this will be as well as the pros of the play-in tournament. It’s going to be wild and I also think a traditional playoff race would be fun. Last year, the Grizzlies had the 8 seed and were heading into a tough schedule to try and hold off Portland/New Orleans and others. That would’ve been fun too.
That said, I’m all in for this race and for how the East race will shape out too. Bring it on and let’s have some fun to see if Washington can climb into the mix.
Zillgitt: Evan, I was mentioning last week how many crazy good wins the Wizards have despite their record.
Barnes: And like Mark said, to counter Luka’s point, if you’re the 7-seed, it’s almost more incentive to push to get out of the play-in tourney.
Jeff, I had to double-check the standings now. I didn’t realize the Wizards were back in things. The way they’re playing lately? That might be a scary team to watch along with the Hornets, who might be getting LaMelo Ball back sooner than we thought?
Eppers: This is kind of a hard pivot, but what other teams or players are we looking forward to watching down the stretch? I know that’s also very open-ended. After Steph, we mentioned the Wizards and now certainly LaMelo and the Hornets.
Eppers: I’m fascinated by the Thunder. I don’t know if it’s morbid curiousity or what, but I find myself watching OKC a lot. It really stinks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is hurt, but Lu Dort is one of the few guys it’s kind of fun to watch play defense, and Aleksej Pokusevski seems equally likely to do something amazing or confounding.
Mussatto: SGA is clearly the Thunder’s franchise cornerstone, but Poku and Dort might be the fan favorites here, Matt. People can’t get enough of them. Poku is a fascinating player. He looked completely out of place in the first half of the season, but he’s looked much improved since returning from the G League bubble. He’s a 7-footer who plays point guard at times. You can see why the Thunder wanted to take a chance on his upside.
I’ll also throw out the Bulls as another team that interests me given the amount of pressure they put on themselves at the deadline. They’ve managed to stay afloat with Zach LaVine out.
Zillgitt: The Knicks! Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett and Tom Thibodeau’s defense.
Going to throw a couple more Eastern Conference on the list: Miami, Boston and Atlanta (tip of the cap to Nate McMillan). In addition to teams we already mentioned, like Brooklyn’s situation. Also, the Bucks.
Medina: I’m also into seeing the Pelicans and seeing Zion’s growth, especially as a playmaker. The Pelicans considered it a high priority for Zion to have that responsibility for three reasons. It would reduce clogging in the post. It would allow him to bulldoze opponents at the rim. And it would make it easier for Zion to develop a post-up game and mid-range jumper since teams would be more thrown off on where he is.
Eppers: Zion barreling down the lane at you has to be the most terrifying thing for a defender.
Barnes: Zion’s continued growth because quietly, he’s having the second season that we expected with his hype. How Jaren Jackson Jr. helps the Grizzlies when he finally returns. Can Boston keep up this late play? Can Phoenix overtake Utah for the No. 1 seed with Mitchell out because I really like how they’re playing lately.
After seeing Denver Monday night, I’m fascinated by how they look minus Murray. Jokic is obviously playing out of his mind, but that’s a team that could still put up a great fight. And Matt, if Zion’s coming down the lane full speed, it’s a business decision every time to give him the least resistance without total surrender.
Eppers: The logjam in the East after the top three teams is such a wide-open race, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the Celtics, Knicks, Hawks or Heat nabbed the 4 seed. But do any of those teams have a shot at surprising the Sixers, Nets or Bucks in a series?
Medina: I can see the Celtics doing that. They’re hitting their stride. And if not for numerous injuries and Jayson Tatum’s absence because of COVID at the beginning of the season, Boston would be among the top in the East. But barring any health issues, the Nets, Sixers and Bucks have huge separation over the bottom East seeds.
Zillgitt: Celtics perhaps — if they play like they have been. And Miami is a wild card.
The Celtics need to play this way for the rest of the season, though, for me to be a believer.
Medina: Yes, I shouldn’t doubt the Heat either. Their issues were also health related too. I don’t see the Knicks or Hawks upsetting a top playoff team.
Barnes: The Celtics this year might be like Portland last year — the lower-seeded team teams might not want to face. However, the C’s health is the caveat just like Portland’s lack of defense was.
But I agree. I don’t see New York or Miami upsetting this time around. Those big 3 in the East are locked in ahead of the others.
For the latest NBA news and analysis, follow us on Twitter @usatodaynba.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Roundtable: Play-in games add intrigue at end of grueling NBA season