The Prelude to the Prelude to the Finale

As with everything in life, change is inevitable. Some of it's sweet. Some of it's wack. All sports leagues change and evolve. That's no different when it comes to postseason structure. As leagues expand their participant number (along with their customer bases), the road to a title is ultimately adjusted. The number of playoff teams inevitably changes, but so does format, length, and location.

In 1990, the NFL expanded the number of conference postseason berths from 5 to 6 (10 to 12, overall). Because of that, division winners weren't guaranteed the bye week they were afforded from 1978 through 1989. After 30 years of vying for a top-two seed, the number of bye-awarded teams decreased again for the 2020 season.

In 2001 (has it really been that long?), the NCAA switched its tried and true location configuration for the men's basketball tournament. Instead of taking their eight sub-regional sites and assigning them strictly by the region of the country they represented, the organization devised a "pod" system. The goal was to provide an early reward for the top teams on a year-to-year basis.

Whether it's Major League Baseball or Major League Soccer, the way a postseason looks now won't stay that way forever. As I said before, some of those changes grew to be well-received. Other initiatives fell flat and didn't last more than a few calendar cycles. The latest shift will happen in a few weeks. During last year's bubble restart, the NBA decided to throw a twist in the postseason prep. A play-in game was instituted, under confined circumstances. The Association powers that be thought it would be intriguing to expand the play-in concept to this season.

Over the last few months, the limited tournament to get into the main playoffs were kind of an afterthought. You might think of it from time to time, but it was something to deal with down the road. Well, we're running out of road. The race to determine the 7-10 seeds in each conference is in focus. Not everyone has shown glee for this new, one-time event, whether it's from outside or inside the arena. Personally, I'm kind of "Ehhh..." on this. There are a things I wonder about.

A Mini-Bye For the Top Shots?

Until this year, there was no true "advantage" for the top seeds. Unlike baseball and football, there were no byes. The "top" and "bottom" qualifiers had the same point of entry, the only difference being an extra home game for the better seed. (I can't believe I'm saying this in the past tense.) With this new initiative, the top two teams in each conference get extra games on their opponents (+1 for the 2-Seed, +2 for the 1-Seed). But will this be a boon for those top seeds?

There's always the question of Rest vs. Rust. With the new schedule, the top six seeds will get either six or seven days off before diving into the postseason. Will those 1s and 2s be able to find some rhythm so that they don't get behind early in those series? Will this end up being a huge drain on the teams fighting to get in the playoffs?

A New Endpoint of Regularity?

For years, the NBA season would end mid-week. This allowed postseason participants to get a couple days rest before starting their respective runs. In 2021, the season will end Sunday, May 16th, with the playoffs beginning Saturday, May 22nd. Personally, I kind of like this development.

Out of this country's major sports leagues, almost all of them have deciding factors (end of regular seasons, final rounds, selection for tournaments) on the weekend, if not specifically on Sundays. The Association, to my recollection, is the only outlier. That uniqueness can be seen as a good thing. However, even with a near-week's worth of time between the end of the full regular season and the start of the full playoffs, you wouldn't put hoops on the shelf the entire time. This play-in tournament should keep the tastebuds engaged behind wolfing down that postseason dessert.

A Draft Let in to the Postseason?

Okay, this last one's really out of left field. So, let's say the team you root for has a chance to make this play-in tournament. On the other hand, there are some quality prospect at the top of that summer's draft board. In the 2020 system (or further back), you couldn't be a postseason rep and a lottery team, at least without some kind of trade occurring.

This season, that could conceivably change. Could you win the title and get the top overall pick? No. But is there a scenario where your team loses during the play-in tourney, drops back into the lottery, and stumbles into a top-five pick? Why not? The key with this situation, however unlikely, is the lack of needing to give up capital for the unicorn to comes trotting into the GM's office. No previous trade. No superstar injury. Just the luck of the draw ... after potentially winning a game beyond the regular season's end date.

At this point, we're not sure how these play-in games will go. Maybe it'll fall flat. Maybe it'll be the new hotness. Whether the Association extends it past this one-year trial run, we'll have change in the NBA playoffs this year. Is it ultimately change we can get behind?

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