NBA, NBA Playoffs

The Step Back Roundtable: Format options for the 2020 NBA Playoffs

Basketball could be coming back soon, but how will the 2020 NBA Playoffs be structured?

In regards to resuming the 2019-20 NBA season, the gears are starting to turn. Per The Athletic‘s Shams Charania, the league office has sent a survey to all 30 general managers to get feedback on how the season should finish. The variables discussed were: the number of teams that should be allowed to the neutral site, the number of scrimmages that would happen prior to the postseason and how the playoffs would be organized.

The last part is especially interesting to the public. It’s always fun to consider different ways to structure the playoffs, and chaotic times like these could make the league even more amiable to try new things. Formats of all kinds have already been discussed, and many more are yet to come.

Here to discuss some of them more in depth are Alec Liebsch (@OwlecNBA) and Ben Ladner (@bladner_). They’ll be outlining several formats, the feasibility of each, and what we ultimately think the league should do.

Here’s our roundtable on format options for the 2020 NBA Playoffs:

Alec Liebsch: I’ve read about, listened to and thought of several ways the NBA can tackle this. With the caveat that everyone’s healthy and safety is paramount for getting back to basketball, I think the first step to figuring this out is how many teams we bring to Orlando. Do we want all 30 teams (and their staff) in one central location? If not, how many do we want there?

Ben Ladner: That does seem to be the big question here. Recent reports indicate that the bubble probably won’t include all 30 teams, which is the right call, mostly because of the first thing you said: Safety has to be the most important consideration here. The more players, staff and other personnel present for this thing, the greater the risk that someone contracts and spreads the virus. It doesn’t make sense to have non-playoff teams risk injury or infection just to play an extra five games, and I get the feeling many of those teams will hold their stars out if they have to come back.

I think the ideal number of Western Conference teams would be 12 — the eight teams currently slated to make the playoffs, plus the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs. Now, would that require the league to include 12 teams from the East as well and stretch the field to 24? Or could they cap it at eight because there’s such a wide gap between the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards? I’d prefer the latter; I’ve had my fill of Eastern Conference basketball for this season.

AL: Totally with you on capping the East at eight teams. As much fun as the Wizards have been, we know what we’re getting from them. Ditto for the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, and the rest of that glut. Meanwhile, the West’s 9-12 grouping is all within four games of the 8-seed. In normal circumstances, there’s a real chance one of them usurps the Memphis Grizzlies; they had one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league, while the Pelicans, for example, had one of the easiest. Even in a disappointing season for the Blazers, you can never count Damian Lillard out.

Let’s say the NBA allows those 20 teams — eight from the East, 12 from the West — into the bubble. There’s a few ways to organize a postseason with 20, and they’re all quite different from what the normal playoffs would look like. The format that seems most popular among general managers, per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, is a play-in tournament. What are your thoughts on that structure?

BL: You make a great point about the scheduling imbalance of the situation. New Orleans was probably banking on this part of the season for some important wins, while Portland knew it only had a little while longer until Jusuf Nurkic came back. I think another element to consider — and I don’t know how much this will or should affect the league’s thinking — is player appeal. To me, the fringe teams in the West, which include Lillard, Zion Williamson and high-post passing wiz Harry Giles III, are immensely more fun to watch than the morass in the East.

The central challenge here (and the reason for all of these possible scenarios) is how best to account for each team’s remaining 15 or so games. How do you replicate the potential for movement in the standings that the remainder of the schedule would have created? I like Zach Lowe’s idea of having the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Blazers, Spurs, Kings, Magic, and Brooklyn Nets compete for three spots, perhaps with structural advantages for the Grizzlies because they’re the team everyone would have been chasing. Brooklyn and Orlando won’t love that, because they’d have comfortably been in the playoffs otherwise. To that I would simply say: Be better.

If we agree that having those seven teams battle for three spots, the question then becomes how to align the 16 playoff teams once the participants are set. What do you think?

Brooklyn Nets Orlando Magic

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

AL: “Be better” is an idea I passionately subscribe to. The East’s middle class has been mediocre for a while because the structure of the conferences allows for that. This is a time to try new things, and getting rid of that barrier, even if for only one season, could pay dividends in league reform.

I think the issue with a play-in among those seven squads would be rest. Those middling teams would basically be playing themselves into shape, and would be much more ready for a playoff series than the other 13. That being said, the talent gap of the top-three seeds would probably outweigh any extra synergy or momentum, which is probably why the GMs voted so strongly in favor of such a format.

I don’t know though. I just don’t think we need to have a week-plus of consistently average basketball. The competitive spirit of it all would be fun, sure, but I think it would get old quick. March Madness is fun because you see so many teams in a condensed time frame; I think they’d have to make that play-in really short before people get bored. Plus, what’s the point of duking it out just to get slaughtered by the Los Angeles Lakers or Milwaukee Bucks?

BL: Your first paragraph leads me to my preferred format for this year’s playoffs (and every year’s playoffs): seed the teams 1-16, irrespective of conference. Including teams from both conferences in the play-in tournament complicates the format enough for the league to lean into blurring the lines. I don’t want to ask too much, though.

I get your concern about rest, but I think part of the idea of a play-in tournament is that it gives the top 13 teams a chance to practice and get back into shape while the other seven are playing. Your last question is fair, but it’s the same idea of chasing the eighth seed just to get smacked by one of those two teams; whether they should or not, some teams care about that. As for the possibility of boredom, I think people are so starved for basketball that they’d watch just about anything at this point.

AL: You have a point about the imminent slaughter that the play-in winners would receive from Milwaukee, L.A. and the Toronto Raptors. Fighting for the 8-seed in general is moot unless you’re a young team on the rise. Doing 16 is fine, but I’m really liking the 20-team World Cup idea. It gets everyone involved on a level playing field, and it’s something different without being too radical. Thoughts?

BL: The group stage format would be really interesting and probably a ton of fun, but I do like being able to lock in on two specific teams for a seven-game series and seeing how matchups and strategy evolve over the course of the series. It seems like the World Cup idea would have much more of a regular-season feel to it. There’s a tricky balance between leveling the playing field and still rewarding regular-season performance, and I’m concerned the group format would veer too far toward the former.

This all makes me wonder if the NBA is overcomplicating the situation. The top priority should be finding a way to safely play basketball, not the most creative way to make up for the lost regular season. Simpler might be better here. On the other hand, this might be the best time to just try stuff, because there are no perfect solutions.

Los Angeles Lakers Milwaukee Bucks

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

AL: Sounds like you read John Hollinger’s piece on The Athletic. Keep it simple, Silver. I think you make some good points about the World Cup format. It doesn’t reward the good teams as strongly, and makes what teams did for 63-68 games somewhat moot. The lower rungs definitely benefit in that structure; if Zion pops off for a week, we suddenly have the Pelicans in the second round.

I think there are ways to reward the better teams even within that structure, but that may prove too complicated in what’s already an uncertain environment. Freezing the standings and just going to a 16-team bracket is sensible. As for those bubble teams in the West? Tough sh*t. Can’t please everyone.

BL: Can’t please everyone — that seems to be the operative phrase for the league right now, and the correct way to approach this. (I haven’t read Hollinger’s piece yet, but I have it bookmarked.) I’d be sympathetic to arguments that certain teams deserved a chance to compete for the playoffs, but there’s always the fact that they could have just won more games during the regular season. And how much do we really lose if the playoff picture doesn’t change at all?

I think the increased randomness of a group format sounds great in theory, but loses some luster in practice. For example: it’s really exciting when a 14-seed advances to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, until they get annihilated by Kansas in round three and you start to wonder if a better team might have put up a fight. To me, the payoff of seeing the best teams play each other in the later rounds outweighs fleeting early chaos.

AL: It probably does. You lose out on a great playoff series later if the Spurs get hot for a week. So let’s say 16 teams is the best way to go about it. Do we seed them 1-16 straight, or do we keep it conferenced? I’ve always been a fan of eliminating conferences, and travel won’t be an issue this time around, but there are some barriers to de-conferencing the playoffs.

First of all, the East has a much easier schedule than the West. Even the lower-rung win totals are inflated. And the inverse is also true: the West’s best win totals are deflated, making them look worse than they really are (imagine the old Golden State Warriors in the East).

There’s also the issue of travel in future seasons. Why should an east coast 1-seed be subject to cross-country trips to Portland in the first round? That doesn’t matter for now, but it certainly does for later.

Portland Trail Blazers Boston Celtics

Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

BL: My ultimate hope for the NBA is that they move to a 1-16 format, but you’re right that it would require an accompanying re-balancing of the schedule. Because the regular season has effectively already been played with the tilted schedule, it would be a bit inconsistent to suddenly switch the playoff structure. On the other hand, if it gets the ball rolling toward a future change, maybe it’s worth the inconsistency.

The travel thing is a real concern, especially if a team on one coast has to travel to the opposite coast in consecutive rounds. Maybe a solution would be to shorten the first round to five games? Aside from grumpy owners in the East, travel is probably the issue to which I’m most sympathetic.

AL: There’s also the idea of letting the top seeds choose their first-round opponent. If they want to undertake the risk of travel for a specific opponent, that’s their choice. That could also spark some “us against the world” vibes from the underdogs. Hell, a top team might pick a tougher opponent early on just to get them out of the way. The possibilities are abound in that format, and I think it could make the first round a lot more fun than usual.

BL: Maybe that’s the way to introduce more chaos without penalizing the best teams. Like you said, there are a few different ways a top seed could play that situation, which would have ripple effects down the rest of the bracket. Do you think that would be straightforward enough to implement this season?

AL: Yes, I think it could be done with ease. They can even make a “selection show” about it, which would have great TV ratings. But per usual, the more entertaining formats are the ones the GMs and executives are reluctant to entertain. They probably want the status quo.

BL: I think that’s especially true at the top. Teams like the Bucks, Lakers, and LA Clippers probably want as little variance as possible because they’re already in the most advantageous positions here. I think most middling teams would be in favor of mixing things up and increasing their variance, since their chances of actually winning the title are so low to begin with.

But the idea of picking your own opponents has me wondering: What teams have the biggest difference (in either direction) between their place in the standings and where they’d be picked in a matchup draft? The Houston Rockets immediately jump to my mind; I don’t think the higher seeds would want anything to do with them early in the playoffs.

AL: I think the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers could have high variance too. Boston, per usual, has a lot of different ways to beat you. The Sixers are more specific for how they want to win, but it’s a style that expects to play up on the highest stages.

Houston’s model is very interesting, but I do fear for P.J. Tucker’s body. Having to endure a beating at the 5 for several games/series in a row could do damage to him. And I would be wary about drafting the Oklahoma City Thunder; their three-guard lineup has been deadly this season.

BL: I’m really curious to see how the Thunder hold up in the postseason. They could really benefit from cutting their rotation down to eight guys, but I also wonder if they have another gear in the playoffs like I think the Lakers, Clippers, Utah Jazz and Rockets do. Tucker has been superhuman over the last three years and it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can support that defense, but how many teams are there that can really wear Houston down with their size?

Perhaps the Nuggets, though the Rockets arguably have a bigger advantage on the other end with James Harden’s isolation scoring, and they were always going to be underdogs against the Lakers and Clippers. This is another area where the Thunder might be dangerous, actually…

AL: It seems like we’ve come to an agreement on the ways the NBA can *realistically* bring back basketball. It’s probably best to keep the playoffs to the 16-team standard, conferenced or not. Just a matter of the minutiae.

This was a good talk Ben. Whatever format the league decides on this week for the NBA playoffs, it’ll be great to have the sport back in our lives come August. Any last words you want to put out there?

BL: This was fun! I think this chat helped clarify some ideas not only for this season, but in the future as well. And, as much as we can discuss the best and worst ideas for returning to play, at this point I’d watch NBA basketball in any form I can get it.

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