A fundamental conflict for the NBA:
- The more traditional of a season – all 30 teams playing 82 games, four rounds of best-of-seven series – the league completes, the more more money it will make.
- The more teams involved in a resumed season, the higher risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the league.
That’s why the NBA is considering a middle ground – resuming without teams far outside playoff position.
But how would the league structure a format for 20 teams?
Maybe a group stage to replace the first round of the playoffs.
The 16 current playoff teams would qualify for the group stage, plus the four teams with the next-best records (Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs). The remaining 10 teams would be done for the season. The survey sent to each general manager noted that “tiers” would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups.
Groups could then be randomly drawn, with one team from each tier going into each group. The NBA is working on approaches to fairly balance the groupings, such as limiting each group to only three Western Conference teams, according to multiple front office sources. Drawings for the group stage could be televised, league sources say.
As an alternative to having groups randomly selected, multiple league sources say the league has considered allowing Tier 1 teams—the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers—to draft their own groups.
Teams would play opponents within their own groups twice, meaning every team would play eight games. The two teams in each group with the best record would move on.
Based on the current standings, the tiers would be:
- Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
- Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
- Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
- Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
- Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs
As far as ways to resume with 20 teams, this isn’t bad. The draw – whether random or top-team choice – alone would be a revenue-drawing TV event.
The ninth-place (Wizards) and 10th-place (Hornets) teams in the Eastern Conference might argue they should be included over the 11th-place (Kings) and 12th-place (Spurs) teams in the Western Conference. But Sacramento and San Antonio have better records than Washington and Charlotte. If there were ever a time not to stress conference affiliations, it’s now with the league preparing to resume in a single location.
There would be increased risk for top teams getting knocked out early if their group is challenging. They’ve already lost home-court advantage. But there’s also chance of upset in a regular playoff series. Besides, downside could be mitigated by allowing the top teams to draft their groups* and using regular-season record as a tiebreaker.
*This could even be done in reverse – i.e., the top teams selecting which lower-tier teams not to put in their own group.
The Bucks, Lakers, Raptors and Clippers could rotate selecting lower-tier teams to avoid. Once three top-tier teams have nixed a team, that lower-tier team would be placed in the fourth top-tier team’s group. Each group would still be required to have one team from each tier.
Or maybe the top-tier teams could even rotate sticking lower-tier teams into a specific top-tier team’s group. The Bucks could use their first selection on placing the 76ers into the Lakers’ group, for example.
There are many possibilities how to structure a group draft.
If the NBA locks into resuming with 20 teams, the other 10 teams would be incentivized to vote for whatever system generates the most revenue. Those 10 votes could boost any proposal that would otherwise be doomed by teams trying to clear their own path deep into the playoffs.
The draft order and lottery odds would have to be re-considered with a 20-team group phase. Though that’s a minor issue, it’d involve every team. Again, self-interest would creep in.
This idea has some rough precedent. In 1954, the playoffs began with three-team round robins in each the East and West.
The bigger question is how many NBA teams should resume? But if the best answer is 20, this is the best format I’ve seen.