After gathering input from players and teams (and perhaps most importantly, the league’s television partners) for weeks, the NBA seems likely to announce their return-to-play plan this week after commissioner Adam Silver held conference calls with GMs last Thursday and the Board of Governors last Friday.
The NBA has the difficult task in front of them of coming up with a solution to conclude the regular season and hold the 2020 NBA Playoffs that balances logistics, player/staff safety, competitive fairness, and financial concerns. While attacking this problem, we’ve heard a number of rumored solutions in the last couple of weeks. The league might bring all 30 teams back to conclude the regular season, or it might go to the playoffs, or it might bring only some (maybe 22?) teams back who have a chance at the post-season. They might not do the regular season at all and go straight to a 16-team playoff with the current standings, or they might reseed 1-16, or they might institute play-in games for the 7th and 8th seeds to give teams in the hunt a fair shot at earning a playoff spot.
Of course, there’s no easy answer, and as long as the NBA feels confident that they can ensure player and staff safety at their bubble tournament in Orlando, everyone involved (including fans) will be happy to accept whatever imperfections exist in the format in exchange for having basketball being played.
That said, I think that the optimal solution is the proposed World Cup-style group stage format. It’s unlikely that the group stage format will end up being the league’s solution, given that it is by far the most drastic deviation from the league’s traditional format and higher-seeded teams seem to have expressed opposition to the plan. However, before the NBA makes their decision official, I wanted to outline why I think the group stage format provides the best solution to the league’s problem.
When I originally saw the group stage format as reported/proposed by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, I was against the idea. First, as I said above, it is a drastic deviation from the normal format, which seems like an avenue for opening the post-season up to unintended consequences. In a year that has been so abnormal, it seems ideal for legitimacy purposes that the league keep what remains of the schedule as normal as possible. Additionally, if the NBA were to tweak their post-season format, it would be nice to institute a change that could last. The early rounds of the NBA playoffs are in need of reform, and the league has not-so-secretly been looking at ways to increase competitiveness (and TV ratings) early in the postseason.
Of all the proposals offered, the group stage is the one that has the least chance of sticking for multiple seasons. The reason is that the logic by which such a format would be justified is self-defeating: you want a group stage because it will increase revenue during the first round of the playoffs, but you could never have one because it would so drastically devalue the regular season that there would be a significant hit to 82 games’ worth of ticket sales and local TV contracts. The NBA already has one of the more forgiving playoff systems in sports, with 16 of the league’s 30 teams advancing to the post-season. Expanding that to 20 out of 30 would essentially guarantee a playoff spot to anyone who wants it, especially in an era where a lot of teams go through one or more “rebuilding” years where they tank to accumulate prospects, draft assets, and cap space. It would also lessen the value of accumulating high numbers of regular-season wins to get a higher seed, since top finishers would be thrust into a post-season group with a number of other teams instead of securing a one-on-one series against a low seed.
But for this season–for the problems that present themselves to the league right now–the group stage offers the best solution.
Think about it. Games are set to resume July 31st, with teams telling the league they want the season to be concluded by October 1st at the latest. Given that a standard 7-game series takes fourteen to sixteen days to play, the sixty-two day window we’re talking about here simply does not have enough time for additional regular-season games to be played–the league either has to shorten their playoff format (like making the first round best-of-3 or 5, though even these measures would only save a few days unless expanded to the second round as well) or go straight into the playoffs.
But don’t teams need to warm up? Players are fairly united in insisting that they do not want their first games back after months away to be playoff games. And don’t we need to determine a fair way to develop a 16-team field, since their are four Western Conference teams who still had a shot at making the playoffs? (Per PlayoffStatus.com, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio each had a 10% chance or greater at stealing the Western Conference 8-seed from Memphis in the closing weeks of the season. While multiple Eastern Conference teams have not been mathematically eliminated from contention, none even had a 1% chance of earning a berth.) And don’t we need as many teams as possible to hit 70 games broadcasted on their local TV network so they can fulfill their contract?
A solution in which teams play additional regular season games would give teams warm-up time and help every team that is brought back hit 70 games on their local TV deal, but it would cause major scheduling complications and/or make four rounds of best-of-7 series impossible. Additionally, it seems unlikely that it would actually solve the “fairness” problem of the Western Conference 8-seed. A new schedule would have to be built, and maintaining the prior schedule’s distribution of head-to-head games and strength of schedule would be impossible to do with fewer games and a limited pool of teams in Orlando that leaves the weakest out of potential opponents. The league has suggested that after the 20 or 22 teams brought back reach their 70-game threshold, they would hold play-in games for the 7 and/or 8 seed to account for those scheduling disparities.
But if such a play-in tournament is going to occur, it would take more precious days away from the league’s window to conclude the season by October 1st, and it would render the make-up regular season games essentially meaningless for teams on the bubble. These make-up games could cause major discontent higher up, however, as the aforementioned inconsistencies in strength of schedule and head-to-head match-ups could manipulate jostling for seeding and match-ups. If the league decides to make the make-up games not count for seeding purposes, then they are essentially wasting two weeks of their nine-week window on meaningless exhibition games.
If the NBA cuts out those make-up regular season games altogether and goes straight to play-in games, they’re putting themselves in an altogether different bind: putting teams on the edge of the playoffs through a rigorous six-week process (2 weeks of individual workouts, 2 weeks of training camp, then travel to Orlando and a 2 week quarantine) for what could be just one game. If they play 7 vs 10 and 8 vs 9 in each conference, that’s 8 teams who are coming back. Four of them will go home after one game, and the other four who win their play-in games would likely be quickly dispatched by top seeds in the first round. All of the teams who lose their play-in games would fail to hit the 70-game TV contract threshold, and even a team like New Orleans, who has played 64 games to date, could win their play-in game, get swept in the first round, and still only reach 69 games played.
Additionally, it seems painfully arbitrary to cut off teams 11 and 12 in the Western Conference, as Portland (29-37), New Orleans (28-36), Sacramento (28-36), and San Antonio (27-36) are all so closely clustered from 9-12. The Pelicans and Kings at 10 and 11 are literally tied. And the Eastern play-in games would feature the far-less-worthy 9th place Wizards (24-40) and 10th place Hornets (23-42), who couldn’t have claimed reasonable hope of pushing for the 8-seed under normal circumstances.
For the eight teams in the play-in games, their entire fate would rest on their first game back from a four-month break. For the other twelve teams, their first game back from a four-month break would be opening night of the first round of the Playoffs. The implications there are only worsened if the league has to shorten the first round to a best-of-3 or -5 series, making a potential rusty game 1 loss even more devastating.
The outside-the-box solution to this mess is the group stage format. The league would invite the sixteen current playoff teams, plus the four Western Conference teams that are all jostling for the 8th seed, making four groups of 5. If each team played every other team in their group twice, that would make for eight first-round games per team–guaranteeing that all 20 teams that came to Orlando would surpass the 70-game threshold for their television deals. It’s true that teams would be returning to play in games that matter, but the rust factor is downplayed when every game matters equally in an 8-game group stage. The league could also compromise by allowing each team 1-2 exhibition games before results begin counting towards group standings.
As O’Connor suggests in his piece, the group stage would replace the first round of the playoffs, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the quarterfinals. This fits nicely with the league’s schedule–an 8-game group stage only takes slightly longer than a 7-game first-round series–and provides the networks with more hours of televised basketball as each team would play the full 8 games instead of potentially ending a first-round series in a four-game sweep.
For the teams lower in the standing, a group stage provides a more equitable opportunity to vie for the second round. Instead of facing off head-to-head against a 1 or 2 seed, teams would compete to steal the second qualification slot from their group from a 3 or 4 seed while playing against a range of teams that vary in style and strength (each group would likely have one 1/2 seed, one 3/4 seed, one 5/6 seed, one 7/8 seed, and one of the four teams ranked 9-12 in the West).
For the teams higher in the standings, however, the road becomes murkier. Losing games to middle-tier playoff teams could cost you in the group stage, when normally you would avoid those match-ups until later rounds of the playoffs. And the potential rest advantage from a first-round sweep would be gone, as you’d be forced to play eight games. However, if you win your early games and clinch a spot, you could potentially rest stars in the final group stage matches. Or, by picking and choosing which late-stage games to rest in, a top-ranked team could manipulate which team in their group earns the second qualification spot. Imagine the drama of an already-clinched Lakers team resting in game 7 against Oklahoma City and then playing their guys in game 8 against Boston to help the Thunder advance ahead of the Celtics.
The group stage isn’t a perfect solution. It would not be sustainable in future years because of the way it devalues the regular season. And, for a league whose postseason typically involves less randomness than other sports due to having four rounds of full best-of-7 series, it provides less assurance than other formats that the league’s best eight teams would end up in their eight quarterfinals matchups.
But when addressing the league’s unique 2020 situation, the group stage seems to me to be the best way to balance competitive fairness for teams in the playoff hunt, fulfill the teams’ 70-game local TV contracts, and meet the league’s deadline to end the playoffs by October 1st.
The fact that a group stage would give us more games and more drama than any first round in league history would only be a bonus for those of us watching from home.