All reports are pointing to the return of the NBA season in late July.
Whether the league picks back up in Orlando or elsewhere, the league will crown a champion this year barring any unforeseen development in coronavirus pandemic. However, having a normal end to this season seems like a lost cause.
This means the NBA will have to orchestrate a playoff that produces a champion without delegitimizing the path to get there.
For many around the league, this is not just a matter of “making do” through an unplanned circumstance. How the NBA chooses to finish this one season can impact legacies, careers, and generations of familial wealth.
No player seems to understand that more than Portland Trailblazers All-Star Damian Lillard, who told Yahoo Sports that he would be “sitting right on the bench” during the games if he felt like the NBA didn’t give teams a fair chance to make the postseason.
“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team. But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now,” said Lillard. “It’s going to be a lot of those factors going on and that presents a lot of room for a team to sneak some [expletive]. Like, really mess around and knock some teams off and then, ‘Oh, they’re in the Western Conference Finals.’ It’s room for that with this situation. So the fact that it’s possible and we wouldn’t get an opportunity at that, that’s weak to me. I ain’t getting no younger.”
Hall of Famers like Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley have already advocated for the NBA season to be canceled because of the current pandemic. O’Neal even told USA Today that any team that won a ring this year would have an “asterisk” by their championship.
While O’Neal’s focus on safety is to be applauded, his assertion about this year’s potential champion is absurd.
The NBA has played shortened seasons before due to lockouts. In 1998-99 teams only played 50 regular-season games and there was no All-Star weekend. That season resulted in the first championship of the Spurs’ dynasty. The 2011-12 season started on Christmas Day and resulted in teams completing only 66 regular-season games. In June of that season LeBron James won his first NBA championship.
Neither of these titles are devalued.
While these lockout stoppages didn’t occur in the middle of the season like the coronavirus hiatus, the outcome will likely be the same: a shortened season.
There have been no plans announced from the league on how they would officially return to action. The latest reports say that the league will issue guidelines for the resumption of play on June 1.
The league will probably have all teams return to play a few more games before the playoffs. Each team has played around 65 games so far this season but the NBA promised 70 games to regional sports networks and would need to play out these games in order to avoid refunding these local television outlets.
Michele Roberts, National Basketball Players Association executive director, has been engaging in team-by-team virtual calls with players and says that there is an “overwhelming” sentiment that players want to play and finish the season.
“It’s time. It’s time,” Roberts said to ESPN. “It’s been two and a half months of, ‘What if?’ My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does.”
The next steps for the league should be simple if they want to engineer a legitimate championship pursuit.
First, they should allow all teams to return to play the games needed to at least reach the 70-game threshold. This will appease regional television networks and allow players to ease back into playing games before the playoffs start.
Secondly, the NBA should assess the standings after these few games are played and allow the top 10 teams from each conference to make the playoffs. This would limit the complaints from teams on the outside looking in and open up the field to more teams.
Thirdly, the NBA plays it out like a regular 10-team tournament in each conference. First there’s a play-in round with No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9
Both would be the best of five-game series. This would be similar to how the first round of the playoffs was formatted until 2003 and they would start before the rest of the playoffs field, similar to the first four games in the NCAA tournament.
The lowest seed that advances would play the No. 1 seed and the other seed would play the No. 2 seed in the second round.
Lillard’s Blazers are currently ninth in the Western Conference standings. This new format would incentivize not only him but a myriad of other players who were battling for a playoff berth to play hard in the hopes of a fair shot at the postseason.
It would be easy to coordinate if the league is in one location and it would be a dream to see extra playoff basketball with a potential winner-take-And all game 5. Not to mention, it would allow them to market more games and help their national TV revenue negotiations.
It could add a level of excitement to the NBA playoffs that will certainly be needed once you consider that fans will likely not be in attendance to provide the same playoff atmosphere. It will also dissolve any notion that this champion wouldn’t be deserving. Under this format, the playoff field would give more teams an opportunity to compete for a championship in some of the most unprecedented circumstances we’ve ever seen.
This is the NBA’s way out.
A 10-team bracket in each conference gives the NBA the best way to legitimize a champion while keeping players, fans, and league executives invested.
It’s time for the league to pull the trigger on it.