When the NBA implemented the play-in game format for the 2020-21 season, they hardly could have dreamed up a better scenario for television ratings and fan appeal than the Lakers with LeBron James meeting the Warriors with Steph Curry. The result was one of the most-viewed games not only of this season but across multiple regular seasons and postseasons as the purple and gold edged out a win.
But that came despite James himself being adamantly against the newest addition to the NBA’s schedule. While he was a vocal minority, he was a loud voice that was against the idea despite having one of the most memorable plays of the season during the contest.
However, James has the backing of another prominent voice in the room on the play-in game. In an all-encompassing interview with Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic, Buss spoke about seeing why fans like the play-in game while explaining why she does not.
“I obviously see the excitement of it. If we would have lost two games, we wouldn’t have been in the playoffs at all. And that’s, that’s a tough pill to swallow. When you’ve been in the top eight for the entire season. You never dropped out of the playoff position. But yet, you know, you can lose two games, and that’s what happened to Golden State, they were at the eighth spot, and then they ended up losing to us and then to Memphis and they didn’t make it in the playoffs. I could see where it’s kind of fun for one game, but I don’t want to diminish what happens in the regular season.”
The counter to Buss’ point is that the play-in game puts a greater importance on regular season games with the incentive of not being in the play-in tournament if a team reaches at least the No. 6 seed.
The Lakers were not the typical team that would find itself in the play-in game. Long-term injuries to both James and Anthony Davis left the team rudderless for a good chunk of the second half of the season, causing the team to drop from the top of the Western Conference standings into the No. 7 seed. In a more normal year, the play-in game would serve as a buffer against teams tanking, not as a sort of punishment for teams that were injured.
Buss, though, also spoke about the tanking aspect of the play-in game and offered a far harsher way to deal with tanking in the league.
“They like to say that it combats tanking and I think tanking would be best served by losing draft picks, something that hurts the basketball department as opposed to a financial punishment, right? Because the general manager’s job is based on wins and losses. The general manager’s job isn’t based on how many season tickets you sell, or how many sponsors.”
Proving whether a team is tanking is another can of worms that the league almost certainly would not want to open. Given the league’s history with inserting themselves in tanking situations, it’s unlikely they would begin further sanctions for perceived tanking.
The irony here, obviously, is that the Lakers are only a handful of years removed from a prolonged period of tanking for high draft picks, landing the No. 2 pick in three successive years. Granted, Buss also spoke about her brother Jim’s time in charge of the Lakers during those tanking years and how her displeasure led to taking over the team.
“I’m just speaking from my own experience. I think Dr. Buss (her late father, Jerry Buss) kind of really labeled it Showtime, that not only is it great to win, but you have to do it with a sense of style. And, you know, kind of create something that you stand for, and then kind of build the pieces around that. Stay true to the brand that you’re trying to create…that was what my challenge was with the Lakers, that we had a steady level of success. But when my brother was running the basketball operations, we weren’t living up to our old standard. And so we were selling a product that wasn’t what we had, you know, sold our fans on, right.”
At the end of the day, whether Jeanie Buss or James is against the play-in game or not, it’s likely here to say. As noted, the league saw huge ratings from the Lakers-Warriors game as it drew 5.6 million viewers, the highest number in almost two years at the time.
As noted before as well, the Lakers had a set of extenuating circumstances that led to them being in the play-in game. It also did quell tanking as a team like Wizards — led by Russell Westbrook — who otherwise would have likely packed up shop and tried for a high draft pick last season, were able to play their way into the playoffs through the play-in game.
The NBA doesn’t appear likely to change the play-in game format as it’s staying in the 2021-22 season. No matter how loudly James and Buss may protest, they still remain in the minority with the rest of the league and fans.