Lowe: What the new version of the NBA playoffs should look like

The NBA’s cleanest method of resuming its season is to bring the 16 current playoff teams to its designated “campus,” seed them as they are now — eight East, eight West — and play the NBA’s normal postseason.

Sticking to 16 limits the number of bodies, which cuts the chance of COVID-19 spreading. Forgoing the remainder of the regular season addresses that some players on current lottery teams may with good reason have little interest in a half-dozen meaningless games after three-plus months away.

(And let’s be clear up front: Participating should be a deeply personal decision for players, coaches, and staff. This is scary. Mortality rates from COVID-19 have been very low for younger people in good condition, but we still have a lot to learn about this virus — including what long-term effects it might have. Players may face an elevated injury risk returning to high-intensity playoff games. If someone does not want to attend, he or she should not be compelled to.)

The league needs to give teams outside the top 16 something real for which to play — the chance at a postseason spot, or perhaps even to improve their lottery odds through winning games (what a concept!).

The complaint you hear in league circles about such concepts — play-in tournaments, World Cup-style pool play — is that they are gimmicky, and too far from what fans and the keepers of the game consider legitimate proceedings. This season’s champion, should the season get that far, will already face the dreaded asterisk. As silly as that seems, the 1999 champion San Antonio Spurs still hear about it 21 years later because one highly decorated rival coach uttered the A-word. Introduce new structural contrivances, the thinking goes, and the asterisk brightens.

A brief aside: There are definitely unpleasant scenarios in which the asterisk is unavoidable. If one star among the consensus three best teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, and both Los Angeles teams — contracts the virus early, leading to the premature elimination of his team, the whole postseason might feel hollow. (Obviously, the NBA postseason feeling hollow is of zero importance in the grander scheme of life and the health of everyone involved.)

Injuries mar every postseason. The 2012 playoffs felt a little hollow the moment Derrick Rose, star of the No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls, crumpled to the floor at the end of the very first game of those playoffs. The Golden State Warriors‘ demise in 2019 included two traumatic injuries. One ill-timed sprained ankle can derail years of planning.

Injuries are built into sports. Viruses are not. Sprained ankles can’t spread. They don’t threat your vital organs. This is different.

But there is some chance — maybe a big chance, maybe not — that isn’t being talked about as much of the asterisk working the other way. Whatever happens in this postseason, we will remember it forever. It may end up being a badge of honor to win the title in the year a pandemic upended our lives. The asterisk could stand as a marker of toughness and perseverance. Fans starved for entertainment may feel even more than usual as if they lived the champion’s journey right alongside players and coaches. If things go right, winning this title could be a unique source of pride.

But who should compete for it? The financial downside of taking the 16 playoff teams and going postseason-only is limiting the number of games. Every national TV game matters to the bottom line. Some teams can still fulfill their local TV deals. It’s callous, but it’s true.

The competitive downside of playoffs-only is robbing the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs of their chance to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

(The Phoenix Suns are next at 26-39, but they are three games in the loss column behind the Spurs, Kings, and Pelicans, and had five road games to make up. I have to draw a line somewhere. I am uncomfortable with proposals giving all 30 teams some chance at the playoffs. What do you do with Golden State in that scenario, as they have already been mathematically eliminated? Do they play for lottery odds while everyone else chases the playoffs?)

The Spurs, Pelicans, Blazers, and Kings were all within four games of the Grizzlies when the NBA suspended the season — a nontrivial deficit. Memphis had by far the toughest remaining schedule among them. New Orleans had the easiest. Buoyed by Zion Williamson‘s return, some projection systems — including FiveThirtyEight’s — favored New Orleans to snag the No. 8 seed. The Spurs are sitting on a 22-year playoff streak.

Only one East team — the Washington Wizards — was within five games in the loss column of the No. 8 Orlando Magic, and Washington faced the conference’s toughest remaining schedule.

If the NBA really wants games atop the usual 16-team postseason, the optimal number of teams to bring back is 20: the locked-in eight-team playoff field in the East, and the top 12 Western Conference teams.

The most obvious idea from there is to hold a five-team play-in tournament for the No. 8 seed in the West. The Grizzlies might rightfully fight that, and perhaps clamor for some advantage in the play-in format.

So let’s get more radical. There is a giant chasm between the top six in the East, and the Nets and Magic. In the West, the drop-off comes after the current No. 7 seed — the Dallas Mavericks. Our group of 20 thus features 13 strong playoff teams, and seven sub.-500 outfits that are roughly alike.

Let’s toss those seven — Brooklyn, Orlando, Memphis, San Antonio, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Portland — into some crazy tournament for playoff spots 14, 15, and 16. Seven-for-three is cumbersome, but there are ways to do it. You could have all seven start on equal footing, and proceed in various round-robin fashions.



Spencer Dinwiddie understands the unique situation the NBA is in for restarting the season and would be open to multiple options.

If you think the current playoff teams — Memphis, Brooklyn, and Orlando — deserve some advantage, you could have the Grizzlies and Nets face each other in a one-game winner-take-all for the No. 14 seed. The loser would then face the Magic in a one-game winner-take-all for No. 15. The loser of that would then face whoever comes out of some four-team tournament between Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio.

I’m not sure which of those is best, or right. That’s not the point. The point is you can do seven-for-three: a bunch of extra national TV games that will draw huge ratings.

The question then is how to seed the remaining 16 teams, particularly if the Nets or Magic (or both) fall out — leaving at least nine West teams, and just six or seven from the East. The cleanest move is to shift to a 1-16 seeding by record, regardless of conference — an idea that has been discussed at the highest levels, according to our Brian Windhorst and other sources.

Several East teams would balk at any sudden move to 1-16. (My best guess is the Nets and Magic would balk at this entire proposal.) East teams love their charity playoff spots and the gate revenue they bring. Some would view even a one-time-only shift to 1-16 seeding as opening Pandora’s box.

The Bucks might not love the idea of suddenly having to get by both the Clippers (in the semifinals) and Lakers (Finals). Other good East teams would say they constructed teams with an eye on conference rivals. Assistant coaches and video room wizards have spent their time preparing for potential first-round matchups within their conferences. Any midseason sea change would raise cries of Asterisk, Asterisk!

So let’s get really nuts: Keep the East/West format, but designate that ninth West team as the 8-seed in the “East” this season.

For most of the last half-decade, I have been tepidly in favor of the NBA shifting to 1-16 seeding regardless of conference — despite the logistical issues that render it impractical toward the point of impossibility.

East owners would never go for it, which, come on — get a backbone. Dare to peek beyond your base self-interest. (Also: You get a lottery pick if you miss the playoffs! You just made the lottery slightly more favorable to the “best” non-playoff teams! Have a cookie!) The travel issues are real. Even when flying private and staying at five-star hotels, crisscrossing time zones and arriving at 3 a.m. takes a toll. This is a blood issue for some coastal teams.

The 82-game schedule is imbalanced; teams play 52 games inside their conferences.

Most of those problems are at least semi-reparable in theory, which makes this a fun thought exercise. But the one consequence I’ve come back to more in the last year or so is the impact going 1-16 (and conference-less) would have on historical rivalries, and rivalries not yet born. A 1-16 system reduces the chances of the same teams facing off over and over in the playoffs.

Some within the league argue those repeated postseason matchups don’t feel the same today given how often players switch teams — that rivalries don’t harden if the cast of characters changes. More stars have left good playoff teams in the last half-decade than ever before. A star leaving can kill a rivalry, though (as just one example) Bucks-Raptors would have some juice even with Kawhi Leonard in L.A.

But broader NBA history says stars mostly stay a long while with good playoff teams.

So: What if the league applied what I just did with that extra West team in this season’s playoffs — inserting them as a temporary “East” team — in normal seasons to (almost) guarantee the teams with the 16 best records make the playoffs?

Example: The 46-win Denver Nuggets that missed the playoffs two seasons ago — on the last stinking night of the season — replace the 43-win Wizards as the No. 8 seed in the East. We get the 16 best teams and maintain the general East-West structure — and the rivalries it generates. Did we just thread the needle?

Alas, probably not. You run into travel issues right away. What if an East Coast team earns the No. 1 seed, and Portland is shoehorned into No. 8 in the East? It’s not fair to force the No. 1 seed into a 2-2-1-1-1 format that includes as many as four coast-to-coast trips. Through no fault of its own, the top seed in one conference could face a superior No. 8 seed than its fellow No. 1 across the bracket.

There are potential remedies, none of them all that appealing. The league could allow the No. 1 seed to pick its first-round opponent from among the other playoff teams in its conference and perhaps the two worst playoff teams from the opposite conference. That could foist cross-country travel onto the No. 2 seed, which seems unjust. If one top seed gets to pick its opponent, the top seed in the other conference might demand the same right. Incidentally, I have not heard a ton of support among teams for the pick-your-opponent concept.

Reverting to the 2-3-2 format even for just this specific first-round series would halve the number of potential coast-to-coast trips. The NBA could always return to five-game first-round series, though no one seemed eager even before the pandemic to slice away postseason gate receipts. You could get really nutty and give any No. 1 seed in this situation — facing unique cross-country travel early — an extra home game, though that seems harsh toward the underdog.

In some seasons, this would not be an issue. Both conferences have plenty of teams in the middle of the country. But in a lot of seasons, it would be a problem with no elegant solution. Rewarding the most deserving 16th playoff team probably isn’t worth this inconvenience.

For this standalone season, the seven-for-three play-in tournament — combined with this wacky seeding adjustment — could work.

It is a cousin of the World Cup-style pool play proposal that has generated a lot of discussion (and some eye-rolling) among teams. In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups — perhaps four groups of five in scenarios including 20 teams. The NBA would try to make each group a rough composite of the league at large: one elite team; two strong playoff teams; one lower-rung playoff team; one current lottery team.

Teams would play every member of their group at least twice. The top two teams from each group advance into the final eight, which then unfolds like a normal postseason with best-of-seven series. Teams would essentially advance from group play into the second round of the playoffs.

This would mitigate one worry several executives have about play-in tournaments: that they might give teams at the bottom of the playoff picture a head start ramping up toward game speed — and perhaps an early advantage when they face superior teams who have been in exhibition game/practice mode. I’m not sure how legitimate that concern is, but it’s out there, and the World Cup conceit addresses it.

Several teams have objected to the World Cup concept on the grounds that it makes it too easy for current lottery teams to “steal” a second-round playoff spot with one strong week of play (and/or one slump from a playoff team, or basketball gods forbid, one positive test to the wrong player).

There are some grounds to that gripe. It seems to be more about not rewarding sub-.500 teams than the current top seven protecting some huge advantage. Does Boston, for instance, have a better chance of advancing into the final eight via this theoretical pool play or by beating the Philadelphia 76ers — its first-round opponent if you freeze the standings — in a neutral-site seven-game series? Is Indiana better off taking its shot in pool play, or against Miami in a best-of-seven tilt?

The NBA could also weight group standings to give the best regular-season teams an edge. If a win in group play counts for a certain number of points in the standings, then perhaps the team in each group with the best regular-season record — or the top two teams — might start group play with a small points advantage. The NBA could even factor in point differential to make it harder for current non-playoff teams to escape group play.

At that point, we’ve veered far outside “normal” NBA basketball. Nothing is normal right now, but once you pile weighted point systems atop unfamiliar competition structures, you trend toward gimmickry — and raise questions about asterisks and legitimacy. All these formats require collective bargaining.

If the NBA is determined to bring back more than 16 teams — and if there is a will to come back among the players, coaches, and staff comprising those extra teams — some play-in tournament seems the most logical method. There is no version that will satisfy everyone.

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