Nothing is set until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA seems to have coalesced around this restart plan:
Twenty-two teams come to Orlando in mid-July — 13 from the West, nine from the East, all teams within six games of the playoffs when the league hit pause — and, after a two-and-a-half week quarantined training camp, play eight regular-season games each starting July 31. That will be followed by a two-game play-in matchup between the eight and nine seeds (if the ninth seed is within four games the team it’s chasing) with the lower seed needing to win both. From there, the league jumps to a traditional 16-team playoff (no 1-16 seeding) with seven games per round.
That plan — and the unconventional choice of 22 teams — has backing because it’s a compromise that is a win for a lot of people and groups. Who? Here are seven groups or people that come out as winners with this plan.
1) NBA Players
NBA players win not just because they get to go back to work — even if the working conditions are a bit unusual — but they got the regular season games they wanted. It was the players who arguably made the biggest push for regular-season games before the playoffs, and there were two reasons for it. First, going straight to the playoffs — even with a training camp — was asking for injuries. The only way to get in game shape is to play games, and the players wanted some meaningful games in front of the postseason.
The other reason is money. NBA players get paid by their teams for the regular season (for the playoffs they get bonuses paid by the league with the amount depending upon how far they advanced). The league is already withholding 25% of player paychecks anticipating canceled games, this plan at least replaces some of those games. There were 259 total games remaining when the NBA season was paused, this would see 88 of them played. There are no gate receipts for teams, this is not the same financially for owners, but some regular-season games being shown by local broadcasters ultimately helps players’ paychecks.
2) NBA Broadcasters
This is a win for ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting (TNT) because they get games — and sports-starved fans will watch (expect insane ratings). Also the game’s biggest names — LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, etc. — will be taking part, and the stars are always the draw in the NBA.
Speaking of stars, those networks also get Zion Williamson — a massive draw in the 19 games he played — who will be part of at least the regular season, and maybe more. Plenty of people around the league think the whole idea of a play-in tournament gained favor with the league simply to get Williamson to Orlando. With this 22-team format, the league also picks up Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Devin Booker to draw eyeballs.
On top of all that, there will be eight regular-season games per team, which can help local broadcasters and get some past the goal of 70 games (a target number in most NBA local broadcast contracts).
3) Pelicans and Trail Blazers
If play had not been suspended, Fivethirtyeight.com estimated a 60% chance the Pelicans would have made the playoffs and a 14% chance the Trail Blazers would have gotten in. Both teams were 3.5 games back of Memphis with 17 games to play, but the Grizzlies had one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league while the Pelicans had the easiest and the Trail Blazers had a soft closing stretch as well. Plus, New Orleans was coming together and playing better ball (5-5 over their last 10 with a +2.5 net rating) than either Memphis or Portland (both 4-6 with essentially flat net ratings).
Now New Orleans and Portland get to make their case, even if the schedule will not tilt to them as it did before. The league wanted Zion Williamson in the Orlando bubble to juice television ratings, so it came up with a way to get him there, but that plan helps a few teams. Portland returns with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and that makes them a much more dangerous threat to make the playoffs. Sacramento gets the chance to break the longest playoff drought in the NBA.
4) LeBron James (and other stars on contenders)
LeBron only has so many shots at a title left and he didn’t want this one to go to waste — there’s good reason he’s been so vocal in pushing for a return to play (after an initial hesitation about games without fans). LeBron is 35, plus this Laker team had key players with injury histories — Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo — yet it stayed healthy and it came together as a team and played elite defense. This season came together for the Lakers, and while they will largely get the band back together for the 2020-21 season, there are no guarantees — LeBron needs to take his title shots while he can.
That same philosophy applies to other teams. The Clippers, with Leonard and Paul George, were finally healthy and coming together, who knows if they can stay that healthy for another season. The Bucks need to prove to Giannis Antetokounmpo they are contenders so he doesn’t balk when they offer him a supermax contract this summer (although the financial situation with the league could cause that anyway, even if he doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee). James Harden knows he only has so many chances, and on down the list.
5) Adam Silver
Watch the attempts at a restart in Major League Baseball and other sports, and the acrimony between players and the commissioner/ownership becomes the story. It speaks to what an amazing job Silver did building consensus. This wasn’t something that just started when play was suspended, Silver has involved players in the decision-making process going back to the Donald Sterling removal, and he was more collaborative in getting a new Collective Bargaining Agreement past than any commissioner in recent memory. Silver also has been a consensus builder with the owners, and he has involved GMs and team presidents in calls.
All of it built up a lot of political capital and trust, so when Silver had to make the call not everyone was going to like — the 22-team return plan is far from universally popular — he could still get everyone to buy-in. Everyone trusts him, and that is huge for a commissioner.
Honorable Mention Winners: The Philadelphia 76ers (they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, plus with enough wins in the regular season they can move up a spot and avoid Boston in the first round of the playoffs); Also the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns, both of whom were not making the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com had the Wizards at 2% and the Suns at less than 1%) but now get the chance to play some more games and maybe find their way into the dance.