After the Lakers lost for the sixth time in their last seven games on Sunday night, forward LeBron James became the latest star player to criticize the NBA’s new play-in tournament that will determine the final two playoff teams in each conference, as Dave McMenamin of ESPN writes.
“Whoever came up with that s–t needs to be fired,” James said.
Last month, Mavericks All-Star guard Luka Doncic and owner Mark Cuban both offered similar assessments of the play-in format, with Doncic saying he didn’t see the point of it and Cuban calling it an “enormous mistake” to have implemented it this season.
As was the case with Doncic’s and Cuban’s comments, it’s impossible to accept LeBron’s critique at face value without considering his team’s place in the standings. After starting the season with a 21-6 record, the Lakers have gone just 15-22 and are now in a three-way tie for fifth place in the West — Dallas, Portland, and L.A. have matching 36-28 records, so if the Lakers’ slump continues in the season’s final two weeks, they’ll likely find themselves participating in a play-in game.
It’s probably safe to assume that LeBron wouldn’t be speaking out against the play-in format if the Lakers comfortably held a top-four seed — especially since he favored a play-in tournament to determine the last playoff team prior to last summer’s restart, as Sean Highkin of Bleacher Report notes (via Twitter).
Still, it sounds as if LeBron’s frustration with the format comes from a similar place as Cuban’s — the Mavericks owner wasn’t necessarily against the play-in tournament in general, but said that it was a mistake to introduce it during a compressed season, following a shortened offseason.
The play-in format makes the regular season results more important at a time when the league has squeezed 72 games into a 146-day calendar (instead of 82 in 177), meaning teams have to fight harder for their position in the standings when they may prefer to be resting key players and getting them healthy.
In James’ case, he recently returned from a right ankle sprain that sidelined him for 20 games, but it appears he’s still bothered by that injury. As McMenamin writes, the 36-year-old left Sunday’s loss midway through the fourth quarter due to right ankle soreness and didn’t return.
“I definitely want to get healthy. Not only for myself, but for our team,” James said. “I need to make sure my ankle is where it was before the injury. I’ve got to be smart with it.”