NBL reveals Play-In tournament format

Sydney Kings will host Melbourne United in an historic first ever NBL game on Christmas Day Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

The NBL had flagged the introduction of a Play-In tournament for NBL23, with the format now revealed as six teams will enter the postseason, extending the qualifying teams to beyond half of the league.

The Play-In tournament follows in the footsteps of the NBA introducing a similar postseason format in recent seasons, with league commissioner Jeremy Loeliger believing the tournament will add intrigue and excitement to NBL23.

"The end of the season will have a new level of importance and intensity, not to mention three new postseason blockbusters," Loeliger said via a league release.

"Most importantly, more teams will remain in the championship hunt for longer, meaning more fans will continue to be engaged during what will be a more exhilarating finish to the season.

"The NBA has had great success with its play-in tournament. We studied that model and are confident ours will see similar success."

The Play-In tournament is the latest major shake up to the season format, after the in season NBL Cup was held during the pandemic interrupted NBL21.

Perhaps most importantly, feedback from clubs across the league is said to be overwhelmingly positive, with more franchises in the mix for playoff basketball.

The Format

The new postseason format is as follows:

  • Third and fourth will play a one-off matchup to secure the third seed and a semi-final series against the second seed

  • Fifth and sixth will battle in a single elimination matchup with the winner progressing to a game against the loser of the third vs. fourth game

  • The winner of the that final single elimination matchup will secure the fourth seed and move on to a semi-final series against the top ranked team

What NBL22 would have looked like

The NBL could not have scripted a more chaotic ending to NBL22, with the Perth Wildcats and South East Melbourne Phoenix capping the regular season with an overtime thriller.

The Phoenix had little to play for in sixth position, while the Wildcats needed a win to keep their extraordinary postseason streak of well over three decades alive.

If the Play-In tournament was part of the equation, the two teams simply would have shaken hands and met again in a couple of nights time.

It would have given the Wildcats a second chance to extend their playoff run and potentially denied the Tasmania JackJumpers the most unlikely of postseason appearances.

Last year feels like a unique situation, but there's no doubt the absence of a Play-In tournament worked for the unforgettable results of the final weekend.

What history tells us

True historical context is limited given the league has only returned to ten teams for one season, though based on last campaign not much would have changed in terms of intrigue for the lower ranked teams.

The Phoenix (15-13) and Wildcats (16-12) were essentially locked in the top six for the final weeks, before a significant drop to the seventh placed Adelaide 36ers (10-18).

You could make the argument that Adelaide could have mustered some added motivation down the stretch if sixth position in the standings was meaningful, but they finished a long way off the pack.

NBL21 finished with Brisbane in sixth (18-18), with Adelaide (13-23) once again well behind after injuries struck a number of key players.

In the five seasons prior to that, the seventh placed team combined for a 59-81 overall record, with the most competitive team being the 2017 Sydney Kings who still finished below .500 at 13-15.

It's not a perfect science given the majority of those seasons only contained eight teams, but the Play-In tournament might not buoy the hopes of the lower ranked teams late in the season as much as it will give hope to the two teams directly outside of the top four of a fairy tale run.

Pros and Cons of a Play-In Tournament

Like all new innovations, there is some risk, with single elimination games opening up the possibility of a 1 vs. 6 semi-final series that could hold little intrigue depending on matchups, but it's hard to deny the appeal of win-or-go-home basketball and a Cinderella underdog run through the playoffs.

The format does provide some safeguarding in this regard, with the third and fourth ranked teams at the end of the regular season needing to lose two consecutive 'win or go home' contests to miss out of the postseason.

It will also allow teams who suffer key injuries through the season to tread water and not be completely out of postseason calculations.

Last year's champion Sydney Kings were ravaged by injuries early in their campaign, before rattling off 16 wins from their final 19 regular season games just to finish third, including a series of games decided by a few possessions.

If a few of those results flipped, they could have easily been in danger of missing the postseason. In a Play-In tournament situation the Kings would have been a terrifying five or six seed.

Speaking of injuries, the Wildcats were rattled by the late season ending injury to superstar forward Vic Law. A Play-In tournament could have allowed fans the opportunity for single game elimination Bryce Cotton brilliance.

There could be an argument made that six teams qualifying for the 'postseason' in a ten-team league is unnecessary, but with expansion on the horizon, it's unlikely to be an issue for long.

Ultimately, if you're an NBL fan, you are guaranteed to be watching the Play-In tournament and with that in mind, it's a relatively safe bet that the league are onto a winner.