Breaking Down Which Option is Best for NBA Season to Resume

Steve Lichtenstein
June 01, 2020 - 9:49 am

Any return to the court format NBA commissioner Adam Silver is expected to choose on Thursday will result in some teams getting the short end.

Of the possible proposals leaked last week, many reeked of a ploy to get New Orleans’ rookie sensation Zion Williamson onto fans’ TV screens in games of importance, no matter how unfair it was to other clubs. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst confirmed my suspicions in a report on Friday.

The Pelicans were in 10th place, by virtue of a tiebreaker over Sacramento, and 3.5 games out of the eighth playoff seed when the NBA suspended its season on March 11. To advance further, they’re going to need a rigged restart, like a play-in round. I can hear the howls from Orlando, Brooklyn, Dallas and Memphis.

Silver is in an unenviable situation. The COVID-19 pandemic presents enormous challenges to manage as he makes his decision. How to keep the players safe tops the list.

Infection prevention is the priority, which is why making all 30 teams descend onto the Disney property in Orlando later this month is considered unlikely. As I’ve noted frequently, the only way this thing has a chance to work is if everyone agrees to live in a bubble. Given the nature of the game of basketball, one infection from outside contact can easily spread across multiple teams despite frequent testing.  

So, while the league has a strong monetary incentive to get teams with regional sports network contracts to 70 regular season games, adding hundreds of bodies to the bubble just so clubs can finish their tanks is a risk that could prove to be more trouble than it’s worth.

On the flip side, players aren’t only concerned about the virus. They’re also keenly aware of the physical tolls that would be presented from an immediate ramp-up into the playoffs.

With just about every team’s practice facility at least open now for restricted workouts, there will be some prep time before the speculated July 31 restart date.  However, the required intensity from playoff basketball is a far cry from that of practices, intrasquad scrimmages or even exhibitions. That rules out a 16-team return straight to the postseason.

In between, Silver, a creative sort who is enamored with European soccer (hence, his annual lobbying for an NBA mid-season “tournament”), floated a World Cup group stage proposal. The field would be limited to 20-24 teams.

This is the worst of all the ideas, since it basically throws out the first 65-odd games of the regular season. Can you imagine the outcry if the groups weren’t competitively balanced to perfection (and believe me, there would always be someone who cries that it’s imperfect), resulting in a weaker team advancing to a quarterfinal round by virtue of a hot two weeks at the expense of a .600 club? The Athletic’s John Hollinger mused about what would happen if a team started 1-5 in an assumed eight-game pool-play group—they’d surely pull their best players in the last two games, skewing the race to make the cut.

What makes the most sense then? How about simply picking up where you left off, only without the teams that have nothing to play for? Eight teams in the East (Washington and Charlotte are too far out to move up in a truncated season), 12 in the West—start by using the existing schedule until everyone gets to 70-72 games.

It would be just like the end of any regular season, only without the tankers. Sure, teams who are not worried about playoff seeding would manage loads to prep for the playoffs, just as they do every year at this time. However, the remaining games would still serve as useful ramp-ups. Meanwhile, existing playoff seeds wouldn’t lose the advantages they accumulated over the first three-quarters of the season. Finally, those who are trailing would at least still have time to make up ground.

This would be the best of a cadre of bad options. Of course, it wouldn’t provide any boost needed to elevate Zion into prime time, which probably means there’s no chance this star-struck league will implement it.

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