A 10-Point Plan to Prevent Tanking, Crown a Champion and Reopen the NBAMay 28, 2020
The NBA is pushing for a return, with Orlando gaining momentum as the host site. Considering Disney owns two of the NBA's primary networks (ABC and ESPN), the league's national broadcast partner has clear motivation to open its ESPN Wide World of Sports complex as an NBA campus.
While the league hasn't made any final decisions, some teams have the understanding that the 2020-21 season may start on Christmas Day, with training camps and the preseason starting in December. The 2019-20 NBA Finals would thus need to wrap up by Nov. 1, giving the league time for a quick offseason with the draft and free agency.
By potentially pushing back the start of the 2020-21 season, the NBA is giving itself more time to resolve the current season, which has been shut down since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
If players reconvened in July, resuming the season later in the month or in early August would give the NBA a three-month window to get in as much basketball as it can safely manage.
But how much of the regular season can the league manage in that time? Can it get enough teams back to fulfill their local television contracts (many of which are believed to have 70-game obligations)? How can the league motivate teams that are out of playoff contention, avoiding tanking to preserve draft-lottery position?
The following is a 10-point plan to get all 30 teams back into play once it's safe to do so:
1. Lottery Order Set
The NBA should start by freezing the draft order as of the shutdown. The Milwaukee Bucks have the 30th pick. The Orlando Magic have the 15th. The lottery order for the top 14 is set, with the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks filling out the top four, respectively.
Just like that, tanking is solved.
2. 10 Games Apiece
Every team gets 10 games each, creating an even playing field.
The Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks would end up playing a league-high 77 regular-season games on the year, while the Los Angeles Lakers would play a league-low 73. Most teams would finish with 74 or 75 regular-season games.
Getting in 10 games should allow most teams to fill their local television responsibilities, which should help the NBA stabilize its income for the season. That justifies the expense of a return and helps determine both playoff eligibility and seeding.
3. All 13 Teams with Winning Records Are in the Playoffs
Congratulations to the 13 teams with records above .500. You’re already in the playoffs. That includes the Dallas Mavericks (40-27), who have a 10.5-game lead over the ninth-place Portland Trail Blazers (29-37) in the Western Conference.
The Eastern Conference would have six teams automatically qualify (Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers), while the Western Conference would have seven (Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Lakers and Mavericks).
The remaining 10 regular-season games for the locked-in contenders would function as a beefed-up preseason. The 13 teams would play only against one another, with their total record on the year (pre- and post-shutdown) determining playoff seeding.
None of these teams could fall out of the playoffs, though they could rise or drop in the standings.
4. 3 Spots for 17 Teams
The final three playoff seeds will be available to all of the remaining teams, giving every team ample incentive to bring its full roster to Orlando. That includes the Warriors, who were already eliminated from playoff contention before the league went on hiatus. They need a reason beyond fulfilling television contracts to return for 10 games.
The Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies and Magic may not like this plan since they are currently in playoff position. No solution is perfect, but all three are being penalized for their losing records. The Nets and Magic had a relatively safe cushion over the Washington Wizards (5.5 games behind Orlando) but the Grizzlies' 3.5-game lead over the Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings (plus the San Antonio Spurs, who were four behind) was far more tenuous.
Still, the teams with better records should be given an advantage over the rest, while bottom-feeders like the Warriors should have an uphill battle to make the playoffs.
5. Rewards/Penalties for 'Normal' Regular-Season Standings
Based on team records at the shutdown, teams that had won at least 40 percent of their games would get a "win" on their record and would go into the final games starting at 1-0. Teams above 45 percent would start at 2-0. For instance, if the Blazers went 7-3 to finish the year, they would end with an 8-3 record.
45-50 percent reward: +2 wins (Grizzlies, Nets and Magic)
40-44.9 percent: +1 win (Phoenix Suns, Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs)
35-39.9 percent: no reward, no penalty (Charlotte Hornets and Wizards)
30-34.9 percent: +1 loss (Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons)
25-29.9 percent: +2 losses (Hawks, Timberwolves and Cavaliers)
20-24.9 percent: +3 losses (Warriors)
The Warriors still would be technically alive in the playoffs race, but they would start 2.5 games behind the top three teams.
6. Final 3 Seeds Determined by Win Percentage
The 17 teams fighting for the three spots would play against one another. After 10 games, the top three teams by win percentage would be added to the playoff pool of 16.
The reward/penalty system will result in uneven records. For instance, the Wizards (who have no penalty or reward) will finish with their 10-game win/loss record. But the Nets, who have a two-win bonus, will have 12 games on their record. The Warriors will have 13 with their three-loss penalty.
If Steph Curry and the Warriors got hot and won nine of 10 games, they would finish with a 9-4 (69.2 percent) record. Should the Nets win seven of 10, they would finish at 9-3 (75 percent) by virtue of their bonus wins and would thus edge the Warriors out for a playoff berth.
7. No Conferences in the Postseason, Seeding 1-16
Traditional conferences were abandoned when the final three seeds were opened up to 17 teams to give each squad real incentive to return. The final results could yield 7-10 teams from the West and 6-9 from the East.
The NBA has long toyed with the idea of reseeding based on record, but travel is the biggest obstacle in the early rounds (imagine the Trail Blazers and the Heat traversing the country every other day in a normal first-round series). A single-site campus eliminates this obstacle.
The three play-in teams, who earn the right to join the initial 13, would be ranked 14-16. Starting with the first eight seeds, the odd numbers would play in one conference, while the evens would play in the other.
In Conference A, the first four odd seeds (Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 7) play the bottom four even seeds (Nos. 16, 14, 12, and 10). The winner of the pool with Nos. 1, 7, 10 and 16 play the winner of Nos. 3, 5, 12 and 14.
In Conference B: First four even seeds (Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 8) play the bottom four odds seeds (Nos. 15, 13, 11 and 9). The winner of the pool with Nos. 2, 8, 9 and 15 play the winner of Nos. 4, 6, 11 and 13.
By way of example (based on the current standings), the No. 1 Bucks would play the No. 16 Magic in the first round. The No. 2 Lakers would draw the No. 15 Nets. If the Raptors (No. 3) and Bucks both get trough their pools, they get a rematch in the Conference A Finals. The Lakers would face the No. 4 Clippers in the Conference B Finals, provided neither team got knocked out in an earlier round. But the 10 remaining games would inevitably jostle the order somewhat.
While the NBA would do a better job naming the conferences, the overall concept can work.
8. Summer-League Schedule
Games all day, every day. The standard evening NBA schedule would need to be scrapped. Start games at noon in Orlando and play through roughly until roughly 10:30 p.m. local time. Teams won't play any back-to-backs, but the league will churn out contests consistently until each squad has gotten through its final 10.
Once playoffs hit, the schedule can go back to some semblance of normalcy, though there's no need to take extra days off for travel. The league's broadcast partners (including Turner's TNT and NBA TV) will have a say in what works best for their ratings, which should be strong since much of the country may still be in some version of sheltering in place and with public events severely limited. Expect a heavy viewership for the rest of the season.
9. No Fans
In a call with players earlier this month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said fans won’t be in attendance if the season does resume, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
“There’s no point in adding risk for flying all of you city to city if there’s not going to be fans,” Silver said, per Wojnarowski.
It will be expensive—the league will lose roughly 40 percent of its revenue without fans in attendance—but it’s reality.
10. Safety First
Considering how much money is on the line for the NBA, players and networks, everyone involved should stay within the league's bubble, as Yahoo Sports' Seerat Sohi recently detailed. If players can bring some family members, they too must follow every rule to make sure a coronavirus outbreak doesn't happen.
Beyond players, that applies to coaches, trainers, statisticians, broadcasters, referees and all other essential personnel. Success will rely on everyone working toward a common goal, with the league making sure everyone's needs are met without venturing off campus.
As a deterrent, the league and union would need to agree to a hefty punishment for anyone breaking those rules. Something as simple as a trip to the market could scuttle the entire season. Thinking about stepping out of line? Perhaps a year’s suspension is a big enough threat to ward off any foolhardy mistakes.
*Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.