The NBA is still working out all the details for the 22-team restart at the end of July. According to the plan approved by owners, teams will play the next eight games on the existing schedule that involve one of the other 22 teams.
The format is simple: if the 9th place team can get within four games of 8th, there’s a play-in series in which the 8th place team needs to win one game over 9th and the 9th place team needs to win twice.
While I would have preferred something more creative (maybe something like a World Cup group play format to set a 16-team playoff field), what the league is doing has some merit. Their plan at least nods at preserving relative strength of schedule differences while also creating some intrigue around a playoffs race. And, it might work that way in the West. In the East? Probably not.
The Wizards are 9th, 5.5 games behind the Orlando Magic. To get within four and force a play-in, Washington needs to make up two games in the standings. If the Magic win four of their eight games, the Wizards have to win six.
Looking at the relative strengths of the 22 teams selected for the restart, it’s a clear case of “one of these things is not like the other.” With a strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin of -4.86, the Wizards are a whopping 3.42 points per game worse than the second-worst Sacramento Kings. That’s bigger than the difference between the Wizards and the league-worst Golden State Warriors.
While the full schedule hasn’t been released yet, it’s still possible to make some reasonable guesses about who the Wizards and Magic will face when play resumes. The Wizards next eight are brutal: two each against the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, and a single game each against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns.
Orlando’s slate looks a bit easier — two games against Brooklyn, and one each with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
I haven’t analyzed the next eight for all 22 teams yet, but the Washington’s schedule is almost certainly going to be the most difficult. They can’t play themselves and the NBA’s other weaklings are home. The teams they’re likely to face when play resumes have a collective strength of +4.38 — on average, 9.24 points per game better than the Wizards have been. Yikes.
Orlando’s schedule is a lot easier — collectively, the Magic’s expected opponents are +1.75 per game. That’s about 2.60 points per game better than Orlando.
Looking game by game, the Wizards will be significant underdogs in all eight contests. Their best chances are against Brooklyn and Phoenix — I estimate the Wizards have a 38% chance of winning in each of those games.
Orlando looks to be coin-flip favorites in three of their games and coin-flip underdogs in two more.
This doesn’t mean the Wizards will go to the Disney bubble and get stomped eight times. I estimate they have only about a 9% chance of losing all their remaining games. More likely, they’ll win one or two — probably one against Phoenix or Brooklyn and another “upset.” Orlando is likely to win 3-4, however given their relative strength and their expected opponents.
Winning even three games would be an achievement for the Wizards, but even that probably won’t be enough to gain ground on the Magic. It’s possible, of course, that Washington could get hot and fluke their way into 4-5 wins while Orlando stumbles. What’s most likely, though is that the Wizards slim hopes are snuffed in the first few games and the rest will be for entertainment.