A World Cup-style group format for the first round of the NBA playoffs is reportedly among the ideas the league is considering for a summer return.
According to Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer, a survey sent to general managers last week suggested the league would break teams with the 20 best records into "tiers" and then create evenly matched pools. Teams would then play two games against each of the teams in the pools (eight games total), with the top two teams advancing to an eight-team second round.
Advancing teams would then play standard best-of-seven series for the remainder of the playoffs. How the seeds would be determined after pool play is yet to be decided.
ESPN's Zach Lowe reported that "several" current playoff teams are not "enthusiastic" about the World Cup format. The potential of a strong regular-season team being upset by a lower-tier team drew concern from contenders.
Eastern Conference teams have also reportedly resisted the idea of a group-play scenario, per O'Connor. While there would be no immediate impact—because games are housed in one location, no team would be surrendering any gate fees or regional benefits—the East teams are reportedly concerned about potentially losing "leverage" in discussions about reseeding the playoffs or eliminating conferences in the future.
The league's current thinking is that it would include seeds Nos. 9-12 from the Western Conference, rather than two apiece from each conference, for the play-in. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs (and Phoenix Suns, for that matter) all have better records than the Washington Wizards, the current No. 9 seed in the East.
The Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Pelicans, Blazers and Wizards are among the bubble teams that are reportedly eager to continue the season, regardless of format. However, Blazers guard Damian Lillard told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports he would not play if the league simply played out a handful of regular-season games—a possibility raised in hopes of satisfying television contracts and giving playoff teams a warm up.
"If we come back and I don't have an opportunity to make the playoffs, I will show up to work, I'll be at practice and I'll be with my team. I'm going to do all that, and then I'm going to be sitting right on that bench during the games," Lillard said. "If they come back and say it's something like a tournament, play-in style, between the No. 7 and No. 12 seeds, if we're playing for playoff spots, then I think that's perfect."
Some lottery teams have privately expressed they would be fine with their season ending, rather than return for what would amount to meaningless games, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
The World Cup format could provide a best-of-both-worlds scenario. The league could pitch these additional play-in games to networks to satisfy their television contracts, all while limiting the number of teams that have to travel to Orlando or another location.
"Over the weekend, you're getting a sense the league is starting to realize: less is more," an Eastern Conference executive told Wojnarowski.
It remains possible, if not likely, the NBA will return with its standard 16-team playoff and play out the games as they would in a normal year. That said, the league is clearly interested in exploring innovative ways to finish the season.