How Will The NBA Playoffs Look?

The NBA appears to be poised to return, and it could happen as early as July.

There have been a number of proposals for how NBA teams will return, ranging from how many teams would be returning to which stage of the season they would be returning to.  The consensus is that all of the games would take place in a single location, likely Orlando, FL (though rumors of Las Vegas continue to swirl). Teams would have a local training camp, followed by a short camp at the games’ location.

For the most part, your Philadelphia 76ers are going to be locked in to an early series against the Boston Celtics, but there would be some interesting roads for them to reach the NBA Finals depending on how the brackets are set up.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has proposed a format that allows all 30 teams the opportunity to play five more regular season games, which would allow most franchises to fulfill their regional sports networks’ requirement of 70 games to guarantee full payment for the season.

After these five games are complete, the top 10 teams in each conference would be seeded 1-10. The 9th and 10th place teams would play in a do-or-die one-game matchup for the privilege of playing the 8th seed in a five-game series for the chance to play the conference’s top team (Milwaukee or the LA Lakers.)

Upside – Every fanbase will have an opportunity to see their teams on television a few more times. Teams will be able to fulfill some financial obligations.

Downside – The playoff setup is a bit clunky and would have 14 teams sitting on the sidelines while six are playing meaningful games

Verdict – I give credit to Cuban for coming up with something. But this simply is not novel enough to be that interesting, and it is pretty clunky. Thumbs down.

How it would affect the 76ers – Other than providing a five-game warmup, it provides a chance to break their tie with the Pacers for 5th in the East (both teams are currently 39-26). It would also provide a long-shot chance to pass the Miami Heat for 4th place, not that home-court advantage is something that teams will need in this environment.

The next idea was reported by Brian Windhorst on ESPN’s “Get Up” on Monday morning, and would have the league come back after their camps and immediately commence the playoffs. In this report, the 16 teams in playoff positions as of March 12th would be the teams that qualified. This would eliminate teams that were coming on strong like the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers and allow the Memphis Grizzlies to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. It would also put an end to the record-tying streak of 22 consecutive seasons in the playoffs for the San Antonio Spurs.

The wrinkle in this particular plan is that all of the teams in the playoffs would be seeded 1-16, rather than the traditional 1-8 from each conference. This would create a few cross-conference matchups, such as #8 Miami vs. #9 Oklahoma City and #2 LA Lakers vs. #15 Brooklyn (an intriguing possibility if injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant returned).

Upside – Could provide a glimpse into the future of the NBA playoffs, as this playoff format has been one that Adam Silver reportedly prefers as a long-term solution.

Downside – For traditionalists, the elimination of conferences at any point is a sore spot.

Verdict – It is an interesting thought, and one that has been bandied about in some journalist’s dreams. That said it is unlikely to pass through a majority of Eastern Conference owners, who want the guarantee that one of their teams would be in the Finals, come hell or high water.

How it affects the 76ers – Not a lot. They would be playing the Celtics in the 5-12 matchup. Their road to the semi-finals would require a matchup with the LA Clippers rather than the Toronto Raptors, but that feels like a wash.

Next we have a proposal that was included in a survey sent to NBA owners last week. In this idea, the top 20 teams in the league, regardless of conference, would be organized into four groups in a fashion similar to the FIFA World Cup. How those teams would be selected is up for some debate (could be the top 4 teams selecting their opponents, though it more likely would be random selection).

The 20 teams would be split into five tiers, with no two teams from any tier playing against each other in a group. In this scenario, the top four teams (Milwaukee, LA Lakers, Toronto and LA Clippers) would be the top team in each group. Then teams 5-8 (Boston, Denver, Utah and Miami) would be placed, followed by 9-12 (which would include the 76ers), 13-16 and finally 17-20.  Once the groups are organized, each team plays the other teams in their group twice, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals. Ties would be broken by the teams’ regular-season win %.

I ran 500 scenarios of groups being drawn, and the consensus led me to the following groups

Group 1 – LA Clippers, Denver, Houston, Orlando, Portland
Group 2 – Toronto, Utah, Indiana, Memphis, San Antonio (this will heretofore be known as the NBA TV group, because I can’t think of anyone who wants to see many games between these teams)
Group 3 – LA Lakers, Miami, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn, Sacramento
Group 4 – Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, New Orleans

These groups do include some of the same matchups we’d see in a 1-16 scenario (Boston-Philly, Toronto-Memphis, LA-Brooklyn, Miami-OKC), but for the most part there’s a lot more novelty here. Another plus here is that the average first-round since the NBA went to 7-game series for every round has been 44 games and would max out at 56– the group concept guarantees you 80. That would be a minimum of 24 more chances to gamble on games!

Upside – It is certainly novel. Allows more teams to participate in more games. Generates more upset potential (seeds 1-3 are 78-12 in first-round series since the most-recent format change in 2003).

Downside – Questions about how the draft lottery would work still linger. Traditionalists would again be up in arms, despite the opportunity for nearly twice as many games in the first round.  Arguably clunkier than the Cuban proposal, but since this is essentially how every major international soccer tournament in the world operates, it is less of a mystery.

Verdict – This is my favorite proposal. It thinks outside of the box. It is not likely to be done again, even if it is a rousing success this season, simply because a group stage where teams are not all playing in the same city would be unworkable.

How it affects the 76ers – As shown above, they would still have to go through the Bucks and Celtics to get to the Finals, though in this case it would happen at the same time. From a fan perspective – the opportunity to get two more games against Luka Doncic and the chance to see Zion Williamson would be phenomenal.

The last proposal is for the top 8 teams in each conference to begin their playoffs in the standard format. It is by far the most boring proposal, but it is also the one most likely to occur. Because if there is one thing that NBA owners enjoy, it is doing the same thing over, and over, and over again.

Upside – This is what we know. Familiarity breeds a feeling of safety, and safety is a feeling many crave at this point.

Downside – This is exactly what we know. No novelty whatsoever.

Verdict – As stated above, this is the most likely scenario. It is not as fun as the other options, but any basketball at this point is preferable to what we have experienced since March 12.

How it affects the 76ers – Their playoff road would begin against the Celtics, then the winner of Raptors/Nets and presumably on to the Bucks or possibly the Heat.


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