Why 22 teams?
The NBA invited the 22 teams with the best records to Orlando, leaving the eight worst teams at home.
The East has nine participants: the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.
The West has 13: the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns.
The eight excluded teams are the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors.
The NBA considered a wide variety of options, from a 16-team field that would have gone straight to the playoffs to an all-inclusive 30-team field. Ultimately, it settled on 22 teams to maximize interest and television revenue while still excluding teams that did not have a meaningful chance to advance to the postseason. For bottom-dwelling teams, the potential reward of playing in meaningless games did not justify the health and safety risks of potential exposure to the coronavirus.
The 22-team format includes six teams that were outside the playoff picture when the season was shut down March 11, including five teams from the Western Conference. Multiple teams in this group were keen on participating because they believed they would have had a chance to make the playoffs if the full 82-game regular season had been completed. The NBA was sympathetic and aware that expanding the field would enable popular stars such as Zion Williamson and Damian Lillard to participate and have a chance to make the playoffs.
Why keep a regular season?
The short answer: money. The NBA is facing the possibility of billions of dollars in lost revenue because of the coronavirus, which could keep fans out of arenas into next season, and players began having 25 percent of their paychecks withheld May 15. By expanding the playoff field and adding weeks of games leading into the playoffs, the NBA increased its television inventory and ensured that Williamson, one of its biggest draws, could help kick-start its comeback. The players, in turn, will be able to recoup hundreds of millions in lost wages.
Under the NBA’s plan, the 22 teams will have eight games to shake off the rust and settle seeding battles before the playoffs. In a typical year, excitement wanes at the end of the regular season and builds gradually during the postseason, in which first-round matchups are often one-sided. This year, there will be new attention given to the stretch run thanks to the possibility of play-in games for teams near the bottom of the playoff picture.
When will games begin?
Players will report to their teams this month and are expected to undergo coronavirus testing and a quarantine period before they begin training camps. Teams will relocate to the Orlando area in early July, undergoing a second quarantine period before play begins July 31. Each team will play eight regular season games before the postseason, which will last until Oct. 12 at the latest.
Where will games be held?
The NBA has opened negotiations with the Walt Disney Company to host its games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Disney World in Reunion, Fla. Given the large number of teams, the NBA will probably need to hold multiple games and practices simultaneously within the single-site location. There will be no fans in attendance, and the games will essentially be made-for-television events. The NBA’s close relationship with ESPN, one of its major media partners, and its parent company, Disney, influenced the choice of locale.
Are there coronavirus precautions?
This is the toughest question of all and the biggest unknown. At least 10 players tested positive for the coronavirus in March — with some players testing positive on the same team or shortly after playing each other. Additionally, numerous coaches are in a high-risk category given their age.
The NBA has yet to announce its full health and safety guidelines for the resumed season, although players, coaches and staffers are expected to undergo regular testing and remain at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex during the duration of the playoffs in an effort to limit their exposure to the coronavirus, which has led to more than 106,000 deaths nationwide. Understandably, some players have expressed a desire to bring family members with them to the bubble environment.
When the NBA began allowing teams to reopen their practice facilities in May, the league issued detailed guidelines that prevented group activities and encouraged players to maintain social distancing during workouts. The league said Thursday it was “working with infectious disease specialists, public health experts and government officials to establish a rigorous program to prevent and mitigate the risk related to COVID-19, including a regular testing protocol and stringent safety practices.”
A player who tests positive is expected to be removed for a period of isolation while games continue. It is not yet clear how a wider outbreak among a team or teams — or a death — would impact the league’s thinking.
Are players okay with the health standards?
That, too, remains unknown, although a vast majority of players surveyed by the National Basketball Players Association last month expressed a desire to return to the court. The NBA has not addressed how it will handle players who feel uncomfortable with the league’s safeguards.
How will the playoffs work?
The NBA will employ its typical playoff format with 16 teams, eight from each conference, competing in four rounds of best-of-seven series. This year, though, the league will add a play-in round to determine the eighth seed from each conference.
How will the play-in round unfold?
After all 22 teams play their eight games, the top seven seeds in both conferences will be locked in. If the eighth-place team in either conference has a lead of more than four games over the ninth-place team, it will be locked in as well. If not, the eighth- and ninth-place teams will square off in the play-in round. To claim the final playoff spot, the eighth-place team would need to beat the ninth-place team once, while the ninth-place team would need to win twice. This hybrid single/double-elimination approach provides an advantage to the eighth-place team while still giving the ninth-place team a chance to sneak in.
Why add a play-in round?
The play-in round gives the six extra teams a better chance to advance and ensures that the balance of the regular season games will be hotly contested by many teams. In the East, the eighth-place Magic holds a 5½-game lead over the ninth-place Wizards. Without the play-in round, Washington would stand little chance of surpassing Orlando to get into the playoffs. Ditto in the West, where the eighth-place Grizzlies hold a 3½ game lead over the Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings.
A cynic would also note that the play-in round sets up the possibility that Williamson, whose NBA debut drew nearly 3 million viewers in January, appears in as many as 17 games even if the Pelicans don’t advance out of the first round of the playoffs. Without the extra regular season games and the possibility of a play-in round, that number would have been zero.
Will the play-in round even be needed?
It’s far more likely in the West than the East. ESPN.com ran 500 simulations and found that the West’s eighth and ninth seeds finished within four games of each other more than 90 percent of the time, a dynamic made possible by the close bunching of teams in the standings. However, the Wizards, with more ground to make up in the East, were able to force a play-in round in only 10 percent of simulations.
What does this plan mean for next season?
The NBA has begun to tentatively set major dates for next season. In conjunction with the months-long delay, the 2020 draft lottery is scheduled to be held Aug. 25, the draft is scheduled to be held Oct. 15, and the 2020-21 season is scheduled to begin Dec. 1. With the Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for July 2021, the NBA is hoping to complete the 2020-21 season with enough time to allow players from all countries to compete.