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The Changing Meaning of Being ‘Like Mike’


Stein: The N.B.A., as you noted, has said that statistics from play-in games fall into their own category. In a span of about 40 days, Tatum had two 50-point games in the regular season and then a 50-point game in play-in competition. But when we talk about his career total, it remains two 50-point games.

On Tatum’s NBA.com profile page, there is a play-in tab with stats from his 50-point game. Perhaps it isn’t as easy to find as it should be, but a deeper discussion about how to more prominently memorialize statistics from play-in games is sure to follow if N.B.A. teams, as expected, vote for the concept to stick around. The play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds, remember, was added this season on a trial basis after a modified play-in for only the eighth seed was used during last season’s restart in the Walt Disney World bubble.

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m a big fan of the concept because it makes the regular season more meaningful, increases the value of finishing in the top six in each conference and lessens the incentive for teams to tank if they start the season slowly. Some league and television network officials are sure to rue the elimination of the popular Golden State Warriors and the even more popular Stephen Curry in this season’s play-in round, when Golden State had a record that would have secured the West’s eighth seed in a normal season. Yet it would be a huge mistake to focus on how the concept affected one team or one superstar when it gave the regular season a needed boost.

The N.B.A. play-in will probably never work as well as it does in the college arena, where the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball team used a play-in victory over Michigan State as the springboard for a run to the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. tournament. In the pros, play-in winners proceed to a best-of-seven series in the first round. The No. 8 Washington Wizards in the East have much work to do to upset top-seeded Philadelphia, as do the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the West against top-seeded Utah. But the pluses of the play-in far outweigh the minuses after several years in which the regular-season schedule, in part through the rising emphasis on preventive rest, has been steadily devalued.

Q: I understand that the Most Valuable Player Award is based on the regular season, but it seems silly not to account for the playoffs. Why don’t any of the individual awards factor into the postseason? Wouldn’t doing so help bring even more clarity to each race and reduce the emphasis on statistical hairsplitting? — Aaron Slosberg (Santa Cruz, Calif.)

Stein: Basing award voting on what happens in the regular season opens the field to players from all 30 teams. If playoff results were factored in, we would almost certainly see M.V.P.s only from championship teams, and it would sharply narrow the other races.

Along with incorporating the play-in tournament, tying awards to regular-season performance adds meaning and value to the 82-game schedule, which is a constant worry for the league office. The N.B.A.’s long season and the rise in recent years of “load management” rest for stars have league officials brainstorming for ways to increase fan engagement.

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