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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The NBA was redesigned for drama, and it’s working

LeBron James and the Lakers closed the regular season with a victory to claim the seventh-best record in the Western Conference. They faced Minnesota in the play-in on Tuesday.

By Tania Ganguli

The NBA’s Western Conference has been a confusing mash of disarray this season, with few teams seeming capable of separating themselves and the rest mired in a chaos borne of some combination of injuries, disillusion and malaise.

The drama reached its apogee during a 2 1/2-hour period on Sunday afternoon. Seven games between West foes tipped off simultaneously and determined half the postseason seeding, including which teams could rest for a week and which could be knocked out in the play-in tournament before the playoffs even start. There were blowouts, shenanigans and punches thrown.

It was one of the most exciting days of the season, and highlighted part of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s ethos: that change, though it may come at a cost, can be good.

The world of sports is an obstinate and unyielding realm, where tradition reigns. Two years ago, Silver met resistance when he introduced the play-in tournament, in which the teams seeded seventh through 10th compete for the last two of eight playoff spots in each conference.

Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks argued that it was unfair for teams to play a whole season to land among the top eight seeds just to face elimination in the play-in tournament. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said whoever came up with it should be fired.

But two weeks ago, Silver said all but four of the league’s 30 teams still had a chance to make the playoffs. On Saturday afternoon, with two days of games left, the NBA posted a dizzying, color-coded graphic on Twitter with 64 scenarios for the final West seedings.

Did any team really want to face the Golden State Warriors, the defending champions?

How dangerous could the Los Angeles Clippers be once Kawhi Leonard locked in, and if Paul George was healthy?

A team with James and Anthony Davis is fearsome no matter its record, and their Lakers have excelled since the trade deadline.

On the other hand, Sacramento (No. 3) and Denver (No. 1) haven’t inspired fear in conference opponents this year. The Kings, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, were well aware that some teams hoped to face them in the first round.

“If I’m another team, I’m targeting us, too,” Kings coach Mike Brown told reporters last week. He paused and shrugged. “I would target us too. And we’re the only ones that can change that narrative.”

None of this intrigue would have been possible without the play-in tournament.

This is an era when player injuries have concerned teams enough that they have been cautious by occasionally resting them. The league tried to address the wear and tear on players’ bodies several years ago by reducing the number of back-to-back games on the schedule. Adding games with a play-in tournament seemed counterintuitive to that.

It’s undeniable, though, that it made the end of the season more intriguing. With more teams in the playoff hunt, that left fewer teams willing to coast for more favorable draft positioning.

“It makes it more exciting and it keeps things really interesting all the way down the stretch,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said recently, adding: “I’m watching all of it for sure.”

There are certain lulls in the 82-game season during which stakes are hard to manufacture. The last month of the season is often one of those times. Added interest during the regular season could help the league as it looks toward its next media rights deals after the 2024-25 season.

Every team played on Sunday. The slot at 1 p.m. Eastern time offered a slate of mostly meaningless Eastern Conference games. At 3:30 p.m. the real drama began.

Golden State (No. 6) dismantled the Portland Trail Blazers by 56 points, but it was only the team’s 11th road win. About the same time, the Mavericks, with no chance to make the playoffs, lost to the San Antonio Spurs by 21 points. At the trade deadline, the Mavericks had acquired Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets to play with Doncic and seemed to be a championship contender. And yet there they were, ending the season by losing to a 22-win team while under investigation for tanking.

The Lakers finished the season with an emphatic win over the Utah Jazz to claim the seventh seed.

The Lakers had spent most of the season floundering, with injuries further hampering a mismatched roster that struggled to flow. They improved at the trade deadline, but by that point they needed a furious rally to give themselves even a chance at the playoffs. Finishing with the seventh-best record in the West was an accomplishment, but one that took a lot out of them.

Their reward was another game on Tuesday night, in the play-in, when their stars could use some time to heal from their bumps and bruises.

The Lakers’ opponent Tuesday, the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 8), had the most dramatic day. They had spent all season trying to adjust to adding center Rudy Gobert, for whom they had traded away a treasure trove of assets last summer. On Sunday night, during the second quarter of their game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Gobert punched his teammate Kyle Anderson during a verbal altercation. A few minutes earlier, Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels broke his right hand by punching a wall.

McDaniels is out indefinitely, and Minnesota suspended Gobert for the play-in game against the Lakers. It’s not the kind of drama the NBA wants, but it did have people talking. It also showed another example of how much can go wrong with a blockbuster trade for a star.

Then there were the Phoenix Suns and the Clippers. The Clippers were playing to stay out of the play-in tournament and the only way to ensure that was to win — even if that meant facing a star-studded Phoenix team in the first round.

“I’m not a fan of the play-in, me personally, because we didn’t make it last year and we fought so hard to get a top-eight seed,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said last week. “You don’t make it, it’s tough. But we knew today was a big game to stay away from that.”

The play-in tournament is not the last break with tradition Silver will oversee. This month the league and the players’ union agreed to add an in-season tournament to the regular season. It will add more games, but could also add drama. This weekend’s theatrics may be taken as evidence that it doesn’t hurt to try.

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