Against the backdrop of the current barren sports landscape, the NBA appears to be inching closer to an uplifting return to action and the chance to crown a 2019/20 champion.
As discussions continue around the option of using Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando as the bubble for players and coaches, the notion of resuming the season is gathering momentum. Timing remains unclear, but a late July restart is still in play.
Finding the right format to finish the season
Beyond the ongoing work to ensure appropriate testing and safety measures, the biggest question facing NBA commissioner Adam Silver is whether to bring back all 30 teams to wrap up the regular season schedule (or a portion of it), or jump straight to the playoffs. It is a decision that spans health risks, financial implications and logistical maneuvering.
While no outcome is likely to make everyone happy, there is certainly logic to asking only the 16 playoff teams, as per the standings when the season was suspended, to go through the bubble experience. The typical postseason format could remain in place, though of course the higher seeds would have no real edge with home court advantage no longer applicable.
That type of scenario would be a tough break for the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers and other teams chasing the Memphis Grizzlies for the number eight seed in the Western Conference, but it could be the smoothest path to completing this unusual season.
Some more creative proposals have reportedly been presented too. There appears to be support in certain quarters for a play-in tournament for the last few spots that would add some intrigue before the final 16-team bracket is confirmed, though even determining how many teams would be eligible for the play-in tournament is a minefield. Reports have also emerged about a World Cup-style format in which the playoff teams would likely be split into groups for the opening round.
A reminder on the NBA championship odds
A postseason based in Orlando under unusual circumstances and without fans in the building has the potential to throw the race for the Larry O’Brien Trophy wide open. Despite all the new variables, including uncertainty over whether any teams are really going to arrive in these unique playoffs in game shape, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks remain the favourites with the bookmakers at around 2/1, with the LA Clippers closer to 3/1.
But, in whichever format the NBA ends up selecting to complete the campaign, there is a greater-than-normal chance of a team getting hot and pulling off a surprise. That thinking lends itself to two types of team – the veteran rosters that have been through tense battles together before (e.g. the Toronto Raptors at 15/1) and those teams that can put up points without breaking a sweat (e.g. the Houston Rockets at 16/1). The Rockets are a particularly fascinating case, given that Russell Westbrook is sure to return in peak physical condition but it is hard to know whether the same can be said of James Harden. If both are ready to roll in late July, Houston’s style of play could be tailor-made for this compact playoff window.
Other odds that might be of interest include the Boston Celtics at 11/1, the Denver Nuggets at 25/1 and the Dallas Mavericks at 40/1.
With key meetings ahead for owners, front offices and players, we should soon have a clearer picture of the road to the 2020 NBA Finals. Rest assured that contenders and playoff outsiders alike will be monitoring the latest updates.
This is a year like no other – and, despite everything that has transpired since the season was suspended in March, we might yet get an NBA champion this summer after all.