If NBA returns in fanless bubble, will there be regular-season games? A play-in tournament?

NBA playoffs
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Right now, only one thing about a possible NBA return is certain: There will be no NBA games in arenas full of fans anytime soon. Certainly not as part of salvaging this season.

Whether the NBA returns at all remains unclear, with Adam Silver saying data will drive the decision.

If it does return, if the NBA crowns a champion this season, it will be inside a “bubble” — a facility without fans, likely near or attached to a hotel, where extensive testing can screen who gets inside the bubble, keeping human contact down and the coronavirus out. That potential location looking more and more likely is Orlando (over Las Vegas). The advantage of Orlando and the Walt Disney World property is it is all private land, which makes security and keeping people in (or out) of the bubble easier.

If the bubble proves feasible, it leads to the next hard question:

What does the rest of the NBA season even look like?

Here are the three potential paths.

Play all or some of the remaining regular season, followed by a condensed playoffs

This would be the league’s ideal scenario. It would give regional sports networks the chance to make some money back on lost games (even though there would be conflicts because 22 of them have contracts with MLB teams). It would give players and teams to get back into game shape, start to get their teamwork back to midseason form, and improve the level of play in the postseason.

It’s also the most unlikely to happen, for a couple of reasons. The first is the calendar: even with the league willing to go past Labor Day and into September with playoffs and Finals games, start working the calendar backward (including at least 25 days of training camp) and it becomes very difficult to fit in regular season and postseason games.

Second, the larger the NBA makes the bubble, the harder it is to secure and maintain (and there are already challenges with the availability of testing, keeping hotel staff healthy and tested, meals, and more). Bring in those 14 teams not making the postseason and it’s 210 extra players, plus coaches, trainers, equipment managers, video guys, and on down the line. It’s a lot. And for the teams well out of the postseason, what exactly do they gain from this? Not gate receipts. Teams out of the postseason will prioritize health and next season. Would the Golden State Warriors play Stephen Curry in 5-10 games and risk injury when they have no shot at the playoffs?

Have seeds 7-10 have a play-in tournament followed by the playoffs

Adam Silver pitched this idea as part of his planned changes for the 75th NBA season, and fans and media appeared to like it. Teams and players, not so much. There was enough pushback that the idea was scrapped, along with the midseason tournament.

However, desperate times call for desperate measures. Let’s use the West as an example of how this would play out: The 7-seed Mavericks would play the 8-seed Grizzlies in one game, the winner is in; the 9-seed Trail Blazers and 10-seed Pelicans would play one game, loser goes home; then the loser of the 7/8 game would face the winner of the 9/10 game for the final playoff spot.

Here’s the problem: Of the eight teams in the tournament (four from each conference), two go home after just one game, two go home after two games. That’s four teams who brought their teams to Orlando, went through 25-days of training camp, all so they could play a game or two. Games that bring them no gate revenue. Again, this just makes the bubble bigger, and is the payoff worth it?

Call the regular season done and head straight to the playoffs

This is the most likely scenario. Is it fair to the Pelicans/Trail Blazers/Kings that had a chance to catch Memphis and earn a playoff spot if the season hadn’t been suspended? No. But Anthony Slater at The Athletic put it best:

The league can tell teams like the Kings and Pelicans: “Sorry. You might’ve slipped into the eighth spot. But you were very likely going to be eliminated quickly and those two high-dollar home playoff games you would’ve hosted? They’re already gone. There won’t be fans. None of you are near .500. It’s the middle of a pandemic. Now is not the time to worry about legacies of teams without winning records.”

There would need to be some exhibition games between teams before the playoffs started (East vs. West?) just for players to get some teamwork and timing back.

The first couple of rounds of the playoffs would need to be shrunk down to best-of-five series (there has been talk of a best-of-three, but that seems to short and random). The Finals, and likely conference finals, would be best-of-seven affairs, like usual.

Would we see the champion as legitimate? There will be an asterisk next to this season no matter what, but if the Bucks, Lakers, or Clippers go on to win the title, that will feel like an outcome we might have seen had there been no coronavirus. If the Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat won the title, it would raise some eyebrows.

Let’s just hope we get to raise those eyebrows and ask questions because the games are being played.