At long last, the NBA is back. Well, it will be soon.
The league's board of governors approved a return-to-play plan featuring 22 teams, 13 from the Western Conference, and nine from the East.
Only one team–the Portland Trail Blazers–voted against the plan.
Sources — NBA approves 22-team format to finish season by 29-1 vote https://t.co/Byzc8bRNMI
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 4, 2020
The teams involved will head to Orlando, Florida for eight regular-season games to conclude the year, followed by a slightly modified playoff format.
While the standard 16-team structure remains, the eighth seed in each conference will be determined by a play-in tournament, pending the ninth seed in each conference is within four games of the eighth seed.
The No. 9 seed would need to beat the No. 8 seed twice in that scenario, with the No. 8 seed needing just one win to advance into the official playoff bracket.
So, which NBA teams stand the best chance of being the No. 8 seed under the current plan?
As previously mentioned, the Western Conference has more teams heading to Orlando, because a greater number of squads are within striking distance of a playoff spot. The East, meanwhile, features the Washington Wizards jostling to get into position for a play-in game.
In fact, Tim Reynolds of the AP shared a possible schedule of matchups.
If the NBA goes with a plan of playing the next eight Disney/ESPN bound teams on your schedule – capping each team at 8 games – this is what the matchups for those 22 teams COULD look like:
– Heat and Magic each need 1 game
– Lakers and Blazers each need 2 games pic.twitter.com/UgYSiITidq
— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) June 3, 2020
With this template in mind, let's take a look at which team might emerge from each conference.
The West is loaded with teams looking to get into the mix.
Three teams–the Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings–are tied for the ninth seed, with the San Antonio Spurs just a half-game back of those squads. The Phoenix Suns are also in the mix, though it is highly unlikely they can make a push.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies have a 3.5-game advantage on the teams in ninth position, which puts them in a decent spot pending a respectable showing over the final eight games.
Judging by Reynolds' template, the Pels and Kings seem to have the most to gain. The two teams would hypothetically play each other twice, which is an immediate opportunity to gain or lose ground. The Pelicans would also get a pair of cracks at the Grizzlies, while the Kings can stave off the Spurs and play some of the lesser teams in the East like Orlando and Indiana.
The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, would have to play the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in three of their eight games, which is hardly the friendliest slate.
San Antonio is in a similar situation. The Spurs would have a pair of games against both the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz while also having to play the Sixers.
The Kings had been the hot team right out of the NBA All-Star break, but then play was suspended. Can they sustain the momentum they had in February? Even if they do, it might not matter.
The guess here is No. 8 seed in the West will come down to Memphis and New Orleans. Given the Pels' possible schedule, they might even be able to snatch the eighth spot away from the Grizzlies at the end of the eight-game stretch, which would mean they would need just one win to advance.
Indeed, it is very possible to see the Grizzlies losing their grip on that spot, given the teams they might have to face.
Cue all the jokes about the NBA needing Zion in the playoffs. While it remains to be seen how teams will respond after such a long layoff, the Pelicans might be in the best position to snatch the eighth seed.
Even if they have to win two straight against the Grizzlies, New Orleans is a tough matchup. Jrue Holiday can harass Ja Morant up and down the floor, while Brandon Ingram might exploit matchups on the wing.
Zion might have the tougher task of working against defensive aces like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, but he matches up well in terms of his energy and dynamism.
The East requires less analysis, though it is still interesting to dissect the three-team dynamic between the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.
Orlando currently holds a 5.5-game advantage over the Wizards. But because of the play-in format, the Wizards are really just 1.5 games back.
Moreover, the Magic are just a half-game back of the Nets for the seventh seed. Fewer teams involved, but still potential for chaos.
Interestingly enough, the Magic and Nets would play each other twice as part of Reynolds' template. The Wizards would get just one game against Brooklyn. They would not play the Magic.
There are a lot of question marks, especially as far as the Nets are concerned. The top question being: might Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant return.
Kyrie posted a picture hinting he was back in the gym just over two weeks ago.
Kyrie is back in the gym 👀 @KyrieIrving pic.twitter.com/2P7WLTYTkD
— B/R Kicks (@brkicks) May 19, 2020
A Durant return is almost certainly out of the question, but KD is as mercurial as any star in the NBA. Anything an happen.
If one–or both–players were to return, the Nets would have a huge advantage. They have the misfortune of possible playing a pair of games against the Los Angeles Clippers, but also get more winnable games against the Magic, Wizards, Trail Blazers and Kings.
Meanwhile, the Magic have a tough grouping of Eastern Conference matchups. So do the Wizards, who–under Reynolds' hypothetical–would have to play both the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks twice. Might a John Wall return be in the cards? That is another developing situation to watch going forward.
So yes, there is the potential for chaos. But the Wizards have such a tough schedule, it is hard to see them coming within four games of either the Magic or Nets, which would then eliminate the need for a play-in tournament.
Brooklyn should maintain its grip on the seventh seed, with Orlando comfortably moving on as the eighth seed.