How Does the NBA Play in Tournament Work

Jimmy Remland
By Jimmy Remland 8 Min Read
8 Min Read

The NBA Play-In Tournament, introduced in 2021, has quickly become a crucial part of the league’s postseason, offering a dynamic twist to the traditional playoff format. This unique tournament not only keeps the competitive spirit alive until the very end of the regular season but also provides teams with a final shot at playoff glory. Here’s everything you need to know about how the NBA Play-In Tournament works, its history, significance, and more.

The Mechanics of the NBA Play-In Tournament

The NBA Play-In Tournament is designed to determine the final two playoff seeds in each conference. It involves teams that finish the regular season in the 7th to 10th places in their respective conferences.

Format and Structure

  • Teams Involved: The teams that finish the regular season ranked 7th through 10th in both the Eastern and Western Conferences participate in the tournament.
  • Initial Matchups: The 7th seed faces the 8th seed, with the winner securing the 7th playoff spot. Simultaneously, the 9th seed battles the 10th seed, where the loser is eliminated from playoff contention.
  • Second Round: The loser of the 7th vs. 8th game gets another chance by playing against the winner of the 9th vs. 10th game. The victor of this match secures the 8th and final playoff spot in their conference.
  • Outcome: This format ensures that one team from the 7th or 8th seed and one team from the 9th or 10th seed have the opportunity to make it to the playoffs.


The Play-In Tournament typically takes place over several days immediately following the conclusion of the NBA regular season and just before the official start of the NBA Playoffs. For example, the 2023 tournament was held from April 11-14, with the NBA Playoffs commencing on April 15.

Historical Context and Evolution

The Play-In Tournament was introduced to add excitement to the closing stages of the regular season and to give more teams a chance to compete for a playoff berth. Its inception was also a response to the changing dynamics of the league and fan engagement, offering a thrilling prelude to the playoffs.

Key Highlights and Achievements

  • The tournament has seen participation from some of the NBA’s most storied franchises and biggest stars, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Golden State Warriors, along with athletes like LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
  • Remarkably, the tournament has already produced significant upsets and memorable moments, with play-in qualifiers advancing further in the playoffs and, in some cases, reaching the conference finals and beyond​​.

The Strategic Implications

The introduction of the Play-In Tournament has altered team strategies, with clubs now aiming to avoid the 7-10th seed range to secure a direct playoff berth or strategizing to navigate the play-in games successfully. It has enhanced the competitiveness of the league, ensuring teams remain engaged throughout the entire regular season.

Why the Format Change?

The shift to include a Play-In Tournament was motivated by several factors, including the desire to keep the regular season compelling until the end and to provide teams with a fighting chance to make the playoffs. Moreover, it offers additional revenue opportunities for the league and its broadcasters through high-stakes games.

Future of the NBA Play-In Tournament

As the NBA continues to evolve, the Play-In Tournament is expected to remain a fixture in the league’s postseason calendar. Its ability to deliver drama, unpredictability, and excitement has been widely appreciated by fans, players, and teams alike. The format encourages competitive excellence and provides a platform for emerging stars to shine on the big stage.

The Competitive Edge

The NBA Play-In Tournament has injected a new level of competitiveness into the league. Teams on the playoff bubble are now more motivated than ever to secure wins late in the season, knowing that even a 10th place finish could lead to a playoff berth. This urgency has led to fewer instances of teams “tanking” at the end of the season, as the potential rewards of making the playoffs, even as a lower seed, are too significant to ignore.

Financial and Viewership Boon

The introduction of the Play-In Tournament has proven to be a masterstroke for the NBA’s business model. By creating additional high-stakes games, the league has seen an uptick in viewership and, consequently, revenue. Broadcasters like TNT and ESPN have benefited from airing these games, drawing large audiences eager to see if their teams can make a last-ditch effort to enter the playoffs. Moreover, hosting cities gain an extra home game with playoff atmosphere and ticket pricing, further boosting local economies and team revenues.

Strategic Implications for Teams

The tournament format has necessitated a shift in team strategy, particularly for those on the cusp of the 7-10 seed range. Teams are now forced to balance the rest and health of their players with the need to secure a higher seed, avoiding the unpredictability of the play-in games. This strategic depth has added a new layer of intrigue to the regular season’s final weeks, as teams juggle their priorities in real-time.

Memorable Moments and Historical Significance

In its short history, the NBA Play-In Tournament has already been the stage for unforgettable moments and monumental upsets. For instance, the 2023 Play-In Tournament saw lower-seeded teams like the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers make significant runs, challenging the conventional wisdom that only top seeds can succeed in the playoffs. These instances have not only provided thrilling entertainment for fans but also showcased the league’s depth of talent.

Criticisms and Controversies

Despite its success, the Play-In Tournament has not been without its critics. Some argue that it devalues the significance of the regular season, allowing teams with mediocre records a chance to compete in the playoffs. Others express concern over player health, as the format potentially adds more high-intensity games to an already grueling schedule. However, these criticisms are often countered by the excitement and opportunity the tournament provides, highlighting the NBA’s commitment to innovation and competitive balance.

Looking Ahead: The Future of the Play-In Tournament

As we look to the future, the NBA Play-In Tournament is poised to remain a staple of the basketball calendar. Its ability to blend the excitement of single-elimination games with the strategic nuances of a long season ensures that the end of the regular season will continue to be a must-watch period for basketball fans around the world. The NBA’s willingness to adapt and evolve its postseason format reflects a broader commitment to enhancing the fan experience and the sport’s global appeal.

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