The 2019-20 NBA season is probably over. To limit the spread of COVID-19, public health officials are recommending that we avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. In NBA games there are always 13 people on the floor — two teams of five each and three refs. Add in reserves, coaches, and game operations personnel (people to run the clock, keep score, broadcast the game, etc.) and the number goes way past what’s advisable. At least for now.
IF the pandemic abates by May or June, the league could resume play and crown a champion in 2020. Last week, Albert Lee considered three ways the NBA season could end, and the simplest one (other than canceling everything and starting a new season in the fall of 2020) would be to freeze the standings where they are now and start the playoffs.
But, that would leave out 14 teams, 14 fan-bases, and millions of dollars in potential revenue. Plus, teams that might have made a push for the 8th seed would be endlessly wondering “what if”. And, the league would miss on opportunity to experiment with something different and fun that could excite players and fans and produce some memorable basketball.
My favorite idea is a home-and-home play-in tournament for teams currently 8-15 with the winner decided by aggregate score. Yes, EVERY team gets a shot at making the playoffs. There’d be brackets. Every NBA city would get at least one game. Even the worst teams would have a glimmer of hope.
How would the brackets look?
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAY-IN ROUND ONE (with the higher seed’s chance of winning the series)
- 8 Orlando Magic (70.8%) vs. 15 Cleveland Cavaliers
- 11 Chicago Bulls (59.0%) vs. 12 New York Knicks
- 10 Charlotte Hornets (41.2%) vs. 13 Detroit Pistons
- 9 Washington Wizards (59.0%) vs. 14 Atlanta Hawks
PROBABLE EASTERN CONFERENCE ROUND TWO
- 8 Magic (59.5%) vs. 11 Bulls
- 9 Wizards (47.9%) vs. 13 Pistons
PROBABLE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAY-IN FINALS
- 8 Magic (60.8%) vs. 13 Pistons
The most likely outcome in the East would be the 8th seeded Orlando Magic reaching the playoffs and getting the “prize” of getting their teeth kicked in by the Milwaukee Bucks. Pistons fans would likely be delirious with their play-in “upsets.”
Wizards fans would get a couple entertaining games against the Hawks and then near-coin flip odds against the Pistons. If they could got past Detroit (which would be quite possible), I estimate they’d have about a 37% chance of taking down the Magic and getting into the postseason tournament. Overall, I have them with a 10.5% shot of taking the 8th seed in this format, which is a lot better than their current 0.1% chance.
And, there’s always the possibility they could change their odds by bringing back John Wall, who’s already more than a year past his Achilles injury. Not likely, but it’s possible.
What about the West?
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAY-IN ROUND ONE (with the higher seed’s chance of winning the series)
- 8 Memphis Grizzlies (71.3%) vs. 15 Golden State Warriors
- 11 Sacramento Kings (49.2%) vs. San Antonio Spurs
- 10 New Orleans Pelicans (54.3%) vs. Phoenix Suns
- 9 Portland Trail Blazers (58.6%) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
PROBABLE WESTERN CONFERENCE ROUND TWO
- 8 Grizzlies (50.4%) vs. Spurs
- 10 Pelicans (54.5%) vs. Trail Blazers
PROBABLE WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAY-IN FINALS
- 8 Grizzlies (45.7%) vs. Pelicans
The more competitive West looks crazy entertaining. The Grizzlies would be the top seed and heavily favored against the Warriors, but what might Stephen Curry and Draymond Green be able to do for a couple games? What happens if Klay Thompson is ready to play?
With coinflip odds in first and second round series, the Spurs could be bounced early by the Kings or reach the play-in Finals. Either scenario is equally plausible. Would you really want to bet against Gregg Popovich against the Kings and Grizzlies?
The probable Western Conference 8th seed in this play-in scenario would be the Pelicans, a not-bad team that was hoping to make a Zion Williamson-led run over their last 18 games. But they have only slightly better than coin-flip odds in the first round against Phoenix and could be ousted early.
As for what the top seven teams in each conference should do during the two weeks it would take to complete the play-in tournament, I’m open to ideas. I could be persuaded to go along with anything from letting them have even more rest to them playing a tournament of their own for seeding.
Or, if they can’t get started until competition would bump into the Olympics, the league could have a 2-15 play-in for each conference while the top seeds played each other for the conference’s home court advantage in the Finals.
The point is that while the season is probably over, there’s still a possibility for a fun end that would involve every team and give fans something to get excited about.