Grading the NBA's Potential Schedule Changes During the COVID-19 Suspension

How will the coronavirus pandemic impact the future NBA schedule? A look at three potential changes for the 2019-20 NBA season and beyond.
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The NBA is unlikely to hold games until June at the earliest due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the league’s current hiatus has left the future of the sport in limbo. Revenue has crashed after impressive gains over the last half-decade, and players, owners and team employees have all been hit hard by the current crisis. It’s hard to find silver linings as both the NBA and the world face a pandemic with little sign of slowing down.

The COVID-19 outbreak has left us without live games for the last three weeks, though the NBA hasn’t exactly escaped our minds. Awards ballots are being preemptively filled out, and season storylines are being analyzed at length. And the time away from game action has added a dose of creativity to our daily discourse. Alterations to the NBA’s schedule and game format are being intensely debated, with some creative changes potentially on the horizon. With that in mind, we at The Crossover took a look at three potential changes for 2019-20 and beyond, grading the viability of each grand idea.

End-of-Season Tournament: C+

The league remains unsure whether games will be held at all in 2019-20, and if live action does return, it could come at the expense of regular-season games. With a truncated calendar, the NBA could move right into the postseason, freezing the standings as of March 12. But perhaps a better plan is on the horizon.

The NBA could both save time and salvage ratings with an end-of-season tournament in place of the rest of the regular season, providing a brief (though important) warm-up before the playoffs begin. So how could the NBA go about holding an end-of-season tourney? There are a pair of potential routes.

Commissioner Adam Silver could choose to make a grand spectacle of the tournament, including every team from perhaps the No. 5 through No. 15 seed. This seems a bit extreme, and a bit dismissive of a regular season that has already logged 60 games. Perhaps the league can find a middle ground. Each conference could hold a small-tournament with the No. 7 through No. 10 seeds, with teams currently slated to make the playoffs receiving double-elimination status. Silver doesn’t need to go crazy, but a brief play-in tournament could generate some serious interest prior to the playoffs.

Permanent Schedule Shift: B+

The current suspension of the 2019-20 season could impact the 2020-21 season, shifting the league’s opening night toward Christmas 2021 if there is a significant delay before games end. And while the current hiatus remains depressing for fans across the globe, its effect could be a net benefit for years to come.

Imagine the NBA calendar as follows, beginning in with the 2019-20 season returning in June or early July. The league could hold its playoffs through late August, then hold a slightly-abbreviated draft and free agency period in the fall. Games could resume near Christmas, and if the NBA opts to hold an 82-game season (or close) in 2020-21, we could continue to wrap up the playoffs in August 2021. What is currently viewed as a temporary change could be a permanent alteration, and the move may be healthiest for the league over the next decade.

Rather than struggle for attention against football each fall, the NBA could kick off with a bang on Christmas, dominate the spring headlines, then hold its playoffs in the slog of baseball season. Sounds like an ideal schedule, right? It may have taken a global pandemic to spark the change, but permanently shifting the NBA calendar could be a prudent step for the league in the next decade.

Shortened Playoff Series: A

This feels like the biggest no-brainer of the NBA’s proposed schedule alterations. While adding a postseason tournament or permanently shifting the league’s schedule could cause significant dissent, it seems as though there is mass internal and public support for shortening at least the first round of the playoffs. The conference quarterfinals can often be interminable, with plenty of series going 3–0 and 3–1 before the higher seed inevitably closes things out. Plus, a seven-game series dampens the potential for an upset.

A five-game (or even three-game) series could add some chaos to the postseason, bringing back memories of Dikembe Mutombo knocking off the top-seeded Sonics in 1994. The removal of some postseason games may only extend to the first round, and anything fewer than a five-game series feels too much like a crapshoot. Still, Silver would be wise to pull the trigger and make a welcome alteration to the first round of the postseason.