With all signs pointing to the NBA resuming its season, the questions of how and where this will happen are being considered as we speak. The where appears all but decided, with Walt Disney World in Orlando the favorite to serve as a single-site host. As for the how part of the equation, which is to say how many teams will ultimately descend upon Orlando and what kind of format will the playoffs take on, that’s more complicated.
It could be a traditional 16-team, two-conference format with seven-game series for all rounds, though reports have suggested for some time that commissioner Adam Silver, if he had his druthers, would favor using this situation experiment with changes to the playoff format that have been previously discussed. There could be a play-in tournament for the final seed, or final two seeds, in each conference. A straight 1-16 seeding, without regard for conference affiliation, is in play.
And then there’s the soccer approach, with a pool-play, World Cup-style format having been presented as an option to league GMs, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.
The league’s GM survey included a pool play option featuring somewhere between the 16 current playoff teams and the full body of 30 NBA teams, sources said. Teams would be divided into a certain number of groups and face each member of their group the same amount of times. (The total number of pool games has not yet been specified.) All of these would likely be branded as playoff games.
Based on the final standings within each group, eight teams would advance out of pool play into a bracket meant to mimic the league’s normal postseason structure, sources told ESPN’s Zach Lowe.
If I may speak freely, this sounds freaking awesome. The Ringer laid out what a 20-team group-stage format might look like, with five separate four-team groups broken out by tiers according to regular-season record, and each team guaranteed eight games (two games vs. each opponent) within their group.
From there, the two teams with the best records from each group advance. Tiebreakers would have to be determined, and the idea of allowing the four top-tier teams (Bucks, Lakers, Clippers and Raptors) to hold a draft to select their opponents group-stage opponents, has been discussed, per The Ringer.
Under the circumstances, affording the best regular-season teams the advantage of choosing their initial playoff opponents serves as a reward for their work to this point in the season, as a home-court advantage is now a moot point. This also guards against one top-tier team randomly drawing what is known in soccer as a “group of death” — an inordinately stacked set of teams that makes the path out of that group far more treacherous.
As a side benefit, the actual drafting of the groups would be appointment television. Tuning in to see who the Lakers, for instance, would choose to play with a championship on the line, and the disrespect the opponent would then feel as an extension of that selection would make the All-Star draft look like a bunch of kids choosing dodgeball teams at recess.
And that’s really the point of all this. Yes, the players want to play and there is a championship to be decided, but mostly there is money to be made. Or, more accurately, money to be made up.
The NBA, like just about every other business in the country, is in a financial nosedive, and while hoards of entertainment-starved people are likely going to watch whatever product the NBA puts on TV, the more compelling the drama the better it will be for the league’s bottom line. Imagine getting your first taste of NBA basketball in more than three months, and right away you’re thrown into a group-stage format where every single game is, effectively, a must-win because it only takes a couple of losses for a higher-seeded team to potentially get bounced. That’s drama.
Now imagine coming back after all this time to a Bucks-Magic seven-game series. Is it really a contest?
A group-stage format also allows for current non-playoff teams — in a traditional format — to get a ticket to the dance. That would include Damian Lillard and the Blazers, who would be fully healthy with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins likely back in the lineup, and the Pelicans with Zion Williamson and company.
It’s not so much the actual upsets that makes the NCAA Tournament such must-watch TV; it’s the threat of the upset. Even if the truly mind-blowing upsets only happen once in a while, they do happen. You have to watch. The Bucks are not losing a first-round seven-game series to the Magic, but they could lay a couple of eggs in a group-stage format and be out of luck very quickly. As a fan, you could be in line for some 80 games over a couple of weeks of action, all of them with an effective Game 7 feel.
Is that the most equitable format to reward the best teams? No. Is it the most entertaining option? I would argue yes. And given the current predicament, you could understand the NBA wanting to lean toward the entertainment side of the equation. Whether owners would agree, well, that’s another conversation with a whole other set of layers. But we’re getting to a point where no idea is going to be perfect, and we have to settle on one. This, to me, feels like the best one I’ve heard.