May 30, 2020

NBA discussed four potential formats for return to play during Board of Governors call Friday


The NBA is moving closer and closer to resuming the season, and has even reportedly set July 31 as the target date for doing so, but that does not mean that a consensus has been formed on how exactly the league should go about doing it.

As of Friday’s Board of Governors call, four formats were being discussed for a possible concluded season in Orlando, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Those plans, in order of how many teams would be involved, are as follows: 

  • 16 Teams. This format would jump directly into the postseason by locking the current standings into place. Doing so would minimize the risk of spreading infection by limiting the number of teams in the bubble, but would exclude a number of teams in the Western Conference that had a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs before the coronavirus shut down the season. 
  • 20 Teams. If the league brings four extra teams to Disney, it would likely be to hold a World Cup-style group stage. This format would see five groups based on regular-season records open the playoffs. Each team would play each other twice, with either the top two teams advancing to the final eight or the top four doing so with a second group stage. The four non-playoff teams to be invited, in all likelihood, would be the four teams on the Western Conference bubble: the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs. 
  • 22 Teams. Bringing six extra teams to Orlando would open the door for a play-in tournament. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the style being discussed would include all teams within six games of a playoff spot. That would be the Pelicans, Blazers, Kings, Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. If the two No. 8 seeds in each conference (the Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic) were included as well, the NBA could build a simple eight-team bracket with either a single-elimination format or short series. Charania discusses a potentially different 22-team format that would feature regular-season games leading into a play-in tournament, as well as games to determine playoff seeding. According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, this shortened regular season would likely include eight games per team.
  • 30 Teams. If the NBA brought the entire league to Orlando, Charania indicates that it would mean holding a 72-game regular season (approximately 7-10 extra games per team) before holding a play-in tournament. The advantage of doing this would be getting each team beyond 70 games, as that is a critical marker in local television deals. 

Each plan has its merits as well as detractors. The fewer teams make the trip to Orlando, the safer the bubble is likely to be, but the more teams are disappointed. A recent survey of GMs indicated a leaguewide preference for a play-in tournament over a potential World-Cup style group stage, which carries the risk of a potential asterisk in the eyes of fans due to its divergence from the typical playoff structure. 

While all 30 teams might be interested in playing meaningful games, the final format might simply take too long to be viable. As previously noted, the NBA has reportedly set a target date for its return, and if it is to maintain its typical seven-game series postseason format, it needs to allocate at least two months for the playoffs. Adding all of those extra regular-season games might cost the league time it doesn’t have. Players need several months for an offseason, so extending the 2019-20 season would mean further delaying the 2020-21 campaign. 

The NBA’s Board of Governors is expected to vote on commissioner Adam Silver’s recommendation for a format on Thursday, June 4, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. As of right now, 20-22 teams are expected to be invited to Orlando. 

By Sam Quinn

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