In the midst of a two-plus month postponement of the regular season and playoffs, and with little movement or indication of what path they may take up to this point, the NBA is on the verge of a return. That’s all that is clear at this point however, and even that news has its own fragility.
League commissioner Adam Silver will in the coming weeks work with team owners and the players union to determine the best route to recover at least a portion of the regular season — a task that presents seemingly endless challenges. But once they’ve moved past the groundwork of a regular season, what will this one-site postseason look like?
As with anything else surrounding the league, there are endless takes and ideas flooding the internet. Here’s what might be ahead for Luka Doncic and company!
There is plenty of momentum around play-in tournament ideas to encourage a return to play for lottery level teams. After all, why would a superstar on a team with little shot of a postseason appearance want to risk injury or illness to play seven or eight meaningless games?
Even with all the wild ideas out there don’t discount the league sticking to what they know in this time of uncertainty. Whether they get regular season games in or not, we could see the postseason look very familiar with eight Western Conference teams and eight from the Eastern Conference.
The Dallas Mavericks currently find themselves in the seventh spot in the West, matched up against the second place Los Angeles Clippers in a hypothetical first round tilt. It’s important to note in case there are regular season games played again that the Mavs are two and a half games out of fourth, and just a game and a half from fifth.
An idea that has always had support is sending the best 16 teams based on record to the postseason, regardless of conference. In a league that has often been lopsided to a more competitive Western Conference, fans and analysts alike have clamored for a more appealing slate of first round matchups. The Eastern Conference brass are soured to the idea for a variety of obvious reasons.
In this special circumstance though, it’s possible the league tests the long-talked about tweak. Interestingly enough, as the standings sit now the top 16 teams in the league would be split evenly between both conferences.
For the Mavericks, they would currently be the 13th seed somehow once again facing the Los Angeles Clippers (the fourth seeded team).
The Tournament Variety
There’s been a wide range of conversations around tournament play-in games, persuading more of the league and players on bottom-dwelling teams to have something to play for. One such voice is Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who wants to be certain all 30 teams return and nearly all have a shot at a form of postseason.
As ESPN’s Tim MacMahon writes, Cuban’s proposal would include 20 teams in postseason play, with the last four teams forced into play-in games to earn ultimate playoff spots. The league will have fresh opportunity to drum up excitement with a return to play, and possible new formatting. One risk, however, is the chance teams that would have otherwise been locks for playoff spots may risk quick exit — something a team (and owner) like the Dallas Mavericks would want to consider. In Cuban’s proposal, the Mavericks wouldn’t be in the play-in tournament, as his proposal wants to seed the teams regardless of conference, so the Mavericks wouldn’t be one of the four bottom teams.
World Cup of Basketball
Silver recently reached out to team general managers to gauge interest and thought process on multiple solutions to complete the season, and one that has garnered plenty of curiosity is a format adopted from the World Cup.
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor lays out the entire idea with possible matchups. It features 20 teams in five tiers, splitting them evenly into group stage play (a la World Cup), where the two teams from each group advance to an eight team playoff based on record.
This idea will be familiar to global audience, creates must-win matchups, and heightened stakes for a wider group of postseason teams. This idea also presents the most unknown variables. What happens, for instance, if a team like the Milwaukee Bucks draws a tough group, slumps in round robin, then doesn’t make it out of the group stage? Or if the 20th team, currently the San Antonio Spurs, all of the sudden gets hot and advances (because of course the Spurs would)?
There will be hesitancy here from multiple directions, though O’Connor highlights some possible adjustments to make all parties involved more secure.
There will be an endless barrage of league sources, analysts and experts that will offer solutions to the league. Possibilities feel endless, which makes reading and listening to everyone’s offer (here are ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski’s thoughts) so exciting.
What seems clear is the league will need to find ways to motivate as many teams as possible to return; to include as many teams in a hopefully exciting return and not just play out five or six meaningless games. For me that means opting for a play-in tournament for fringe playoff teams, or utilizing a format that gives more than eight teams from each conference a chance at more games.
Considering how risky any return might be for the players and personnel involved — and for league reputation as a whole — why not really change things up? Why not advance the top 16 teams regardless of conference? This might the league’s only chance to test it. And if they really feel brave, give us condensed basketball world cup!
No matter what option is selected, one thing feels like destiny: the Dallas Mavericks will face Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers. A fresh hell that can’t be escaped, even after the season was nearly lost.