On Thursday, the NBA announced that the league’s Board of Governors has approved the competitive format to restart the 2019-20 season. It’s the first formal step among many to resume the season, the NBA said in a press release.
Under the format that has been approved, 22 of the league’s 30 teams will return to play. Each team will play eight “seeding games” and there will be a play-in tournament should there be four games or less separating the teams in eighth and ninth place in either conference. The 14 teams with the best records, plus the two teams that earn the final seed in their respective conferences, will then qualify for the playoffs, which will be a traditional conference-based format.
You can read more about all the details here.
Eight games might not sound like much, but there’s still a lot that could change ahead of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. From which teams will actually make the playoffs to where each team will be seeded, let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake.
The battle for No. 8 in the West
Of the six non-playoff teams that will be making the trip to Orlando to finish the regular season, five are from the Western Conference. Why? There are far more teams in the Western Conference within striking distance of making the playoffs than there are in the Eastern Conference. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are the closest, with each of them trailing the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot by only 3.5 games. The San Antonio Spurs aren’t far behind (4.0), followed by the Phoenix Suns (6.0).
|Team||Record||Games Behind No.8|
|8. Memphis Grizzlies||32-33||–|
|9. Portland Trail Blazers||29-37||3.5|
|10. New Orleans Pelicans||28-36||3.5|
|11. Sacramento Kings||28-36||3.5|
|12. San Antonio Spurs||27-36||4.0|
|13. Phoenix Suns||26-39||6.0|
With four teams currently ahead of them, it would take a lot for the Suns to make the playoffs considering each team will only play eight games. For the Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs, it’s a toss-up. Remember, all one of those teams has to do to have a chance of making the playoffs is finish within four games of the Grizzlies in the standings because of the new play-in rules. Whichever one of them is closest — assuming the Grizzlies hold on to the No. 8 seed and one of those teams finishes within four games of them, of course — would then have to beat them twice to make the playoffs over them.
Another layer to this is the hiatus could benefit teams like the Blazers, who were banged up prior to the season being suspended. Damian Lillard was working his way back from a groin injury and they were awaiting the return of Jusuf Nurkic, who has been sidelined all season long after breaking his leg near the end of last season. They are one of a few teams that should now be at full strength, which could — could — give them an advantage over their competition.
Seeding in the West
Although the seven other Western Conference teams have effectively clinched a spot in the playoffs, there’s a lot to be determined when it comes to what seed they end up with.
The Los Angeles Lakers are pretty much locked in at No. 1, but there are only 5.5 games separating the LA Clippers in second and the Dallas Mavericks in seventh. Some teams are grouped closer together than others. For example, the Thunder and Rockets have the same record, although Oklahoma City technically has the better record because it owns the tiebreaker over Houston. Both the Thunder and Rockets trail the Utah Jazz by one game, the Denver Nuggets by 2.5 games and the Clippers by four games.
Basically, the second and third seed is still somewhat in play for each of them, save for maybe the Mavericks.
|Team||Record||Games Behind No. 1|
|1. Los Angeles Lakers||49-14||–|
|2. LA Clippers||44-20||5.5|
|3. Denver Nuggets||43-22||7.0|
|4. Utah Jazz||41-23||8.5|
|5. Oklahoma City Thunder||40-24||9.5|
|6. Houston Rockets||40-24||9.5|
|7. Dallas Mavericks||40-27||11.0|
While homecourt advantage won’t be a factor in these playoffs, where each team finishes will obviously dictate who they face in the first round and beyond. One team to keep an eye on: Utah. There isn’t an easy out in the Western Conference, but the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending surgery last month, as well as the “frayed dynamic between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert” could make the Jazz more vulnerable than their record might indicate.
Can the Wizards catch up?
The Wizards are currently 5.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Normally, it would be incredibly difficult to make that gap with three-quarters of the regular season already in the books — FiveThirtyEight gave them a 2% chance of making the playoffs prior to the season being suspended for what it’s worth — but these aren’t normal circumstances. Like the Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs, all the Wizards need to do is finish within four games of the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic to have an opportunity to play their way into the playoffs.
The Wizards are currently 6.0 games behind the Nets and 5.5 games behind the Magic, so it won’t be easy, but the door is open. It helps that Bradley Beal was one of the players who was trending upwards before the season was being suspended, leading the league in scoring with 33.6 points per game since the New Year.
If Beal can continue to play at the level he was, the Wizards might have a chance.
|Team||Record||Games Behind No. 7|
|7. Brooklyn Nets||30-34||–|
|8. Orlando Magic||30-35||0.5|
|9. Washington Wizards||24-40||6.0|
What we do know for certain is that two of those teams will be the seventh and eighth seed as the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers can finish the season with no lower than sixth in the Eastern Conference. Whichever one of the Nets, Magic and Wizards get the No. 8 seed will likely face the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, whereas whichever one gets the No. 7 seed will likely face the Toronto Raptors.
Speaking of those teams…
The middle of the Eastern Conference
- The Bucks will finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Even if they were to lose every game from here on out, it would basically take the Raptors winning out for them to fall from the top spot. For a team that has lost only 12 games to this point of the season, I don’t see it happening.
- The Raptors will finish second. You can read why here. The Celtics aren’t far behind the Raptors in the standings, but three games is a lot to make up in such a small window.
- The Celtics will finish third. The same reason for why I have the Raptors second — the Celtics have a 2.5 game lead on the Heat and a 4.5 game lead on the Pacers and 76ers. The Heat are close, but they’ve been one of the more confusing teams in the league this season. I still don’t know what to make of them.
That leaves us with the Heat, Pacers and 76ers fighting for the fourth, fifth and sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Again, homecourt advantage won’t be a factor, but where each team finishes will determine first-round matchups. If my assumptions turn out to be correct — Bucks finishing first, Raptors finishing second, Celtics finishing third — whoever finishes sixth will play Boston in the first round, leaving the other two teams to duke it out.
|Team||Record||Games Behind No. 1|
|1. Milwaukee Bucks||53-12||–|
|2. Toronto Raptors||46-18||6.5|
|3. Boston Celtics||43-21||9.5|
|4. Miami Heat||41-24||12.0|
|5. Indiana Pacers||39-26||14.0|
|6. Philadelphia 76ers||39-26||14.0|
The most interesting team is without a doubt the 76ers. Disappointing as they’ve been this season, there’s a reason our Micah Adams had them in a tier with the Rockets behind the Bucks, Clippers and Lakers when ranking title contenders. In a star-driven league, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, both of whom should now be at full strength, give them a chance of beating anyone in a single game or series.
It’s going to be interesting to see how much weight voters put on the final games of the season considering how much there is still to play for.
- Could Zion Williamson catch Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year if the Pelicans catch the Grizzlies?
- Could LeBron James snatch the MVP if the Lakers pass Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks for the best overall record?
There are still some All-NBA spots up for grabs as well. Bradley Beal leading the Wizards to the playoffs could fuel his case for a spot on the All-NBA Third Team. (Luka Doncic, James Harden, Chris Paul and Lillard are locks to be the First Team and Second Team guards in my opinion). The Raptors separating themselves further from the Celtics could be the difference between Pascal Siakam making the Second Team or Third Team over Jayson Tatum, which could impact Siakam’s future earnings. Russell Westbrook might be able to work his way onto a team if he can vault the Rockets further up the standings.
There’s a chance that voters won’t put much weight into what happens because of how unprecedented all of this is, but with how much could change in only eight games, it’s possible they will. Only time will tell.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.