As the NBA season remains suspended due to the coronavirus, it appears Adam Silver and the league is nearing a decision to return and complete the season.
In a report, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said the league has begun "exploratory conversations" with the Walt Disney Corporation about having games take place at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. The NBA is reportedly targeting a late-July start.
While the location is not locked in, there has been much speculation about the possible format ranging from a “World Cup style” group stage or a play-in tournament. The Crossover asked its writers to explore what is the best possible format to finish the season.
I’d like to steer clear of anything too gimmicky, because if you’re going to crown a champion you don’t want the trophy you present to come with an asterisk because they took advantage of the five-point supershot you rolled out. On the other hand, this is a great opportunity to experiment. The idea of a play-in tournament is intriguing, but tricky. From a safety standpoint, you want to limit the number of people in the bubble, so do you really want to bring everyone inside to play a handful of games? Would teams on the outside really want to fall all over themselves for a chance to get curb stomped in the first round?
So what would I do? Follow the NHL lead and call it a season. It’s conceivable that if the rest of the season were played out that someone could catch an eight seed: The Pelicans have been a solid middle-of the pack team since Christmas, but they’d still have to make up 3.5 games on the Grizzlies. For that to happen, you’d have to have a full schedule of at least 10 games per team, which seems like a colossal risk. So just freeze the standings, play out the postseason as usual and work toward a 2020–21 season that can approach what we all want: normalcy.
I don’t personally see the point in forcing eliminated teams to report, apart from the matter of having to fulfill TV contracts. In a perfect situation (which this inherently is not), I like the concept of the 20-team round-robin group stage that opens up opportunities for a range of teams to qualify for a smaller playoff bracket. Granted, it’s asking for some weird things to happen, and there will be good teams left in the lurch. But a big part of why the NCAA tournament works is that its format leans into that. And playing a longer group schedule should make it harder for top teams to complain. If anything, just don’t crown an official champion and make this a one-time (for now) tournament setup with a different trophy. But honestly, as long as there’s basketball to watch and closure on this season, I don’t really care how they do it.
The NBA has a fine line to walk to conclude the 2020 season. Plenty of experimental ideas have been tossed around, from group play similar to the World Cup to an expanded play-in tournament involving up to 24 teams. Some modicum of creativity is encouraged, but let’s not act like the previous playoff system was completely broken. The NBA can certainly find a happy medium.
Not all 30 teams should be invited to Orlando, and a small play-in tournament (perhaps extending to the No. 10 seed in each conference) would be prudent. That structure is ultimately less important than the final playoff bracket.
The conference system has been antiquated for over a decade giving the Eastern conference powers what amounts to a free ride to the Finals. Let’s scrap the conferences and move to 1-16 seeding once and for all, providing a more equitable playoffs. The time is right for experimentation. The NBA has a great opportunity to shape its future for the next decade in the 2020 playoffs.
Nothing will be normal about the 2020 NBA postseason (if as increasingly expected, it does take place.) That doesn’t mean a potential champion is undeserving or should be discredited, but just that, similar to in a lockout season, the 2019-20 playoffs will forever carry a COVID-19 caveat. While possible format changes could lead to an enjoyable experience, I’m more intrigued about potential broadcast and additional entertainment avenues that playing games in a campus environment could provide. The league will likely be forced into experimenting with different camera angles, but what if, as an example, we could more accessibly also watch games on TV or online using a virtual reality experience, much like its NextVR games that the league had aired weekly during the regular season. That NextVR experience is unique and employing it this postseason could be a way for fans to experience games in a more personal and intimate way.
One other thing I'd personally want to see is what broader reality TV or off-court entertainment content comes out of hosting at least half the NBA in one place for weeks on end. As an example, will we see off-night poker games between players on various teams streamed on Instagram Live? Or will there be other kinds of indoor entertainment that spontaneously pops up and is streamed via social media? With players presumably living together (even in a series of hotels), I'm excited to both see and hear what player down-time looks like and also inevitably hear conversations of how a major free-agency decision was born during the bubble environment postseason.
When I first think of the NBA and Disney World, I can't help but think of the Lopez brothers. Brook owns a house in the Orlando resort and is nicknamed "Splash Mountain," after all.
While Brook will have to cut down on the rides in a potential return-to-play plan at Disney World, he and the Bucks may benefit from a reconfigured playoff format to complete the season. It may be best for the league to follow the NHL's lead by advancing straight to the playoffs and expanding the field rather than completing the regular season. Instead of including an equal number of teams from each conference in the postseason, though, it may make sense for the bracket to include the overall top 20 teams in terms of record. The lower-seeded teams can then participate in shorter series to determine who will take on the top seeds in full seven-game series.
There will be no perfect answer on how to give teams equal opportunities in a potential season resumption, but expanding the playoff field to the best overall records would help give teams on the fringe a chance at further contention. Removing conferences in terms of seeding would also make for some fun match-ups in a time that can be ripe for experimentation.
My initial reaction is that the NBA should just go right into the playoffs. But that doesn't make logical sense on a few levels. First, players need time to adjust and can't go right into that sort of action without ramping up. Second, that keeps any team that did have a chance to qualify out. And lastly, it also limits the number of teams traveling to the site which could be good from a health standpoint but might impact the economic picture.
So, the more I think about it, I actually really like the World Cup Group Stage idea. Change is hard but if there was ever a time to go for it, it would be now. And it could be what leads to a format overhaul overall. Let's be honest, the first round of the playoffs are generally not the best. And when the NBA returns all eyes will be on the league, therefore something fresh, new and exciting is very intriguing.
Ultimately, however, I think the league lands on some sort of play in tournament for the final playoff seeds with a more traditional postseason.