Celtics

NBA Notebook: What revamped NBA playoff format would benefit the Celtics?

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It’s been a busy weekend in NBA circles as more concrete plans begin to emerge regarding the potential restart of the 2019-20 season. The NBA confirmed in comments by league spokesperson Mike Bass that the league is in negotiations over completing the season in Orlando, Florida in July.

"The NBA, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, is engaged in exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing," Bass said. "Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place."

The specific formats that the NBA is weighing using have also been uncovered by Shams Charania of the Athletic. In a piece this weekend, he unveils the general manager survey that was distributed on Friday that gives executives a number of options to choose from on how to handle the rest of the season.

A few of the options being considered includes:

Straight to Playoffs: Eight teams make it from each conference in the usual format based on the standings as of March 11 when the season was suspended.

A play-in round, then straight to playoffs: Anywhere from 18-24 teams could take part in this scenario. It could simply be a play-in game for the No. 8 seed in each conference (18 team scenario) or a far broader play-in tournament that is similar to the NHL format with 24 teams involved. That would create head-to-head matchups for the bottom half of the bracket (5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, etc.) while group play for the top four seeds in each conference would determine the seedings for the top half.

Resume partial regular season then go to playoffs: Most teams have played somewhere between 63 and 67 regular season games when the season was suspended, so bringing that total to a uniform number for everyone would be the goal here. General managers had an opportunity to vote for a preferred numbers of regular season games (72 or 76) as part of the survey.

Resume partial regular season plus play-in tournament before playoffs: Same format as above but with the added wrinkle that there will be a play-in for perhaps the 7th and 8th seed in each conference to compensate for the reduction of regular season games from the schedule.

Playoffs with a World Cup twist: While there are all kinds of play-in scenarios being debated, another option for the NBA would be to create a group play alternative for the postseason in each conference instead of a first round. In this type of scenario, it would allow for a round-robin format among 5 or 6 teams in each group (based on regular season standings) with the top two teams in each group advancing to the semifinals (which would shift to head-to-head, best-of-seven format). This type of group play could also be a replacement for regular season games (one group plays for the No. 7-8 seeds and the others play for seeding in the top-6). A normal four-round playoff format could be held after that.

Other questions being discussed included the scrimmages requested before a restart (2-5), the possibility of reseeding all teams instead of an East/West playoff format and when the season might end (Labor Day, Sept. 15, Oct. 1, Oct. 15 or Nov. 1).

So what should we make of all of these possibilities? What makes sense from a competition standpoint and a financial standpoint? And are there any specific possibilities that the Celtics should be rooting for? Let’s dissect a few of the options in great depth.

Playing additional regular season games before playoffs

Multiple league sources that have spoken with BSJ remain adamant that there will be some kind of regular season or play-in games held before the beginning of the traditional postseason. The motivation there would be two-fold for the league. From a player's perspective, ramping up to postseason play after an extended layoff would be a preferred route from a health and quality of play standpoint. Postseason basketball is a different animal and jumping right into that fire after just a few scrimmages and a shortened training camp would probably lead to ugly basketball and more injuries.

Another strong reason for regular season games will be financial implications. The league will have taken a huge hit during this stoppage and an easy way to recoup some of that money is by ensuring all teams will get their regional TV money (usually a 70-game threshold in contracts with local providers). Going straight to the postseason eliminates team’s chances of hitting that mark, which will lead to further losses for both ownership and players (if some game checks are withheld/need to be paid back).

How many teams should be called back to play in a bubble?

While a healthy chunk of the Western Conference (12 teams) still are within striking distance of the No. 8 seed if a full season was going to be played, the same can’t be said in the Eastern Conference. The No. 9 seeded Wizards are 24-40 and 5.5 games behind the Magic for the eighth-seed. Officially, only the Warriors are completely eliminated from playoff contention but the entire Eastern Conference playoff field looked to be set before the season was suspended.

This reality should create a bit of a tug-of-war from a fairness and entertainment perspective when it comes resuming a portion of the regular season schedule and/or having a play-in tournament. Some teams (Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York) really won’t have anything to play for if the regular season resumes in a shortened slate with no realistic opportunity to make the postseason. Those franchises are likely to protect their top players from injury and serve as doormats for teams that face off against them in a head-to-head setting.

The NHL is trying to eliminate this problem by structuring their season with just 24 teams and a play-in opportunity for 5th-12th seeded teams in each conference. That format would potentially punish teams that were locks for the postseason in the NBA however, rendering the regular season essentially useless and forcing a lot of teams to potentially cry foul if they are upset.

So what’s the correct balance here when it comes to fairness and motivating teams? A middle ground could be some groups play to determine the bottom two seeds in each conference as a replacement for regular season games. Some kind of baked-in advantage could be worked in for teams with the better regular season records (tiebreaker edge over everyone, starting with a game lead in the standings etc.). In this scenario, 24 teams are recalled (12 in each conference) with the top six playing round-robin games to help determine seeding for the top six and the bottom six teams play each other once with the top two teams advancing. The Mavericks (40-21) would get screwed a bit by this, but some advantage could be worked in for them to give them a big cushion in the standings and almost assure their spot in group play. It would be a bit unorthodox for sure, but allows for as much meaningful basketball as possible. The other solution? Play enough regular season games (76) so no one can gripe about it. There are enough teams in the West (four are 3.5 GB of Memphis) to make things interesting in that format if they get hot in the race for the No. 8 seed.

Bottom line: If 76 regular season games are going to be played before playoffs, call everyone back and try to create a balanced schedule (with the same number of playoff opponents and lottery opponents). If not? Find a creative way to do have a regular season/play-in round with up to 24 teams.

What format(s) could benefit the Celtics?