Adam Silver can experiment with NBA’s return to play. Should he?
A decade before Adam Silver became commissioner of the NBA in 2014, he was the president and COO of NBA entertainment. Under his watch, the league’s digital footprint and television reach expanded exponentially.
Now faced with a complex web of decisions, with lives possibly at stake and millions of dollars to potentially be recovered should the NBA season return, Silver has to ask himself one fundamental question: How much risk can the league tolerate in its attempt to resume the 2019-’20 season?
A traditional 16-team playoff format, divided into two conferences represents the path of least resistance. That would leave bubble teams like Portland, New Orleans and San Antonio on the outside looking in, fuming at the missed chance to compete in a playoff setting. The NBA could easily justify this by saying it’s the safest, shortest and cheapest method to reach a satisfactory champion.
But it’s tough to square Silver’s background — a TV visionary who’s openly considered midseason tournaments and expanding the playoffs — as someone who would bypass an opportunity to experiment. The NBA is reportedly considering multiple scenarios when it returns, including a potential play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds, a group stage similar to the Olympics or a resumption of regular-season games with all 30 teams, according to ESPN and The Athletic.
If health and safety are the league’s top concerns, the idea of bringing all 30 teams to Orlando to play regular-season games in July is rife with problems. Teams far from contention, like the Warriors and Cavs, have far more to lose than they have to gain. Not to mention, more teams means more players and support staff, which means more risk.
Silver’s task is to strike the right balance without overexposing his league, satiating owners hungry to recoup lost revenue, and appeasing players through negotiations with the union. That’s some needle to thread — which is exactly why a return to play is so ambitious.
A play-in tournament, theoretically for the last two seeds, adds some level of risk while also placating franchises who felt robbed by the shortened regular season. The Blazers, currently the No. 9 seed, played 66 games, while the Pelicans, at No. 10, played 64. That scenario engages four more fan bases, adds intrigue to the first round and manufactures more games out of thin air.
A group stage scenario, which is gaining momentum according to a league source, could replace the first-round entirely. As detailed in The Ringer, in that setting, 20 teams would be divided into four groups, and each team would face its group opponents twice. After eight games, the top two teams in each group advance to a more traditional second round. Aside from the 4-5 matchup, upsets rarely happen in a traditional first-round format. This would create far more games, with each carrying significant weight and engage more fan bases.
This would, of course, take longer, expose more teams and increase risk. It also could jeopardize a title contender’s chances far earlier. The NBA might be willing to make such a sacrifice in order to make the “first round” more compelling.
One other interesting wrinkle that’s been floated has been eliminating conference affiliation and re-seeding the playoffs 1-16 based on regular-season record. In this instance, the No. 6 Nuggets would see the No. 11 Pacers in the first round instead of the Rockets, if no more regular-season games were held.
Not only would this create new matchups it would also reward teams like the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers who no longer have the homecourt advantage they fought for during the regular season. If the playoffs were seeded 1-16, the Lakers would face the Nets (30-34) in the first round, instead of the Grizzlies (32-33). It might look like a marginal difference, but the best teams would advance, regardless of conference. It would also preserve the possibility of a Lakers-Bucks Finals or even a Lakers-Clippers matchup.
There’s no doubt this would benefit the West more since it’s the deeper conference. In theory, the Nuggets could see Indiana, the winner of the Raptors-Grizzlies series, and then possibly the Lakers in the penultimate round. That’s an intriguing route if you’re Nuggets head coach Michael Malone.
But until Silver and the Board of Governors make a decision, potentially as early as next week, it’s all speculation. As sports fans, that’s as good as we’re going to get right now.