Despite all the format modifications and schedule reductions, and despite the league trying its hardest to create an even playing field with half the grass, the Memphis Grizzlies are still highly favored to claim the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. Last week, the NBA’s board of governors approved a limited, 22-team continuation of the season as a quick gateway to the playoffs. The teams coming to Orlando, Florida, will play eight games, picking up their schedules from where they left off when the season was suspended on March 11—provided that no eliminated teams cross their path. For those games, the league will either jump to the following game or improvise a matchup against another team in the Disney World bubble.
That’s one of many tweaks the league is implementing. Another is winning percentage trumping total wins. There’s already a disparity in games played—the Lakers have played the fewest, at 63, and the Mavericks have played the most, at 67—and that won’t be fixed with each team playing an additional uniform eight games. The Trail Blazers and the Pelicans, for example, are both 3.5 games behind the eighth-spot Grizzlies. Portland has more wins (29) than New Orleans (28), but has also logged two additional games, leading to a better winning percentage.
The play-in tournament is another wrinkle to the modified schedule. If the ninth-seeded team is fewer than four games behind the eighth-seeded team at the conclusion of the “regular season,” the two teams will participate in a play-in tournament. (Remember how fun it was watching Minnesota and Denver play Game 82 for a winner-take-all playoff spot in 2018?) To win the tournament, the eighth-seeded team needs to win only once; for the ninth-seeded team to advance, it has to win two in a row.
Because only eight games remain before postseason play, positioning will be decided by the slimmest of margins. Thanks to the hiatus, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are healthy enough to return to the Blazers. A healthy Portland squad is something the rest of the league has yet to encounter this season. On the other end of the spectrum, the Spurs announced that LaMarcus Aldridge will miss the rest of the season after having surgery on his right shoulder. San Antonio was an outside shot with its top rebounder and second-leading scorer in tow. Without him, it seems downright cruel to make the Spurs live in a basketball bubble for a few weeks.
Here’s what the Western Conference bubble looks like, currently:
8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33), .492 winning percentage
9. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37), .439 winning percentage
10. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36), .438 winning percentage
11. Sacramento Kings (28-36), .438 winning percentage
12. San Antonio Spurs (27-36), .429 winning percentage
13. Phoenix Suns (26-39), .400 winning percentage
I’m not on the board of governors (and if I was, I’d be strongly encouraging my billionaire peers to throw money where it needs to be thrown), but voting for a plan that keeps lopsided conferences intact during an experimental year feels like an obvious missed opportunity. Look at these teams! While the Wizards try to catch the Magic in a snooze of a race, the West features Ja Morant’s Grizzlies, Zion Williamson’s Pelicans, Dame Time and the Blazers, and the forever-pesky Spurs and their 22-year postseason streak. Yet only one of those teams will get to play a seven-game series.
Here are each of the bubble teams’ presumed remaining schedules as predicted by CBS Sports. As a reminder, there are no home or away games, which means no home or away crowds, which means no fan influence, no home-court advantage, no games on the road (thank your lucky stars, Sixers), and no Boston grandmother screaming “GO FAHK YASELF” at the refs. Not a cell phone in sight. Just playing in the moment:
vs. Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks, Pelicans, Pelicans, Celtics
Portland Trail Blazers
vs. Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, 76ers, Celtics, Nets, Lakers,* Heat or Magic*
New Orleans Pelicans
vs. Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic
vs. Pelicans, Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Magic, Pelicans, Pacers, Spurs
San Antonio Spurs
vs. Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz, Jazz, Nuggets, Kings, 76ers
vs. Mavericks, Pacers, Clippers, Mavericks, 76ers, Wizards, Heat, Thunder
* Portland is one of four teams (with the Lakers, Heat, and Magic) whose schedule will be altered. For those four, either the team they were slotted to face won’t be at Disney World, or the team they were slotted to face will have already concluded its eight-game slate.
Memphis’s schedule is one of the toughest on the board without any Kings games to break it up (apologies, Kings fans), but the team has the least to worry about. Per the Action Network, the Grizzlies can still nab a playoff berth if they go 0-8 if the teams below them finish 3-5 or worse. While 3-5 sounds like child’s play, or worse, Cavs’ territory, the opponents they’ll face are all competitive playoff hopefuls. There are no tanking teams down the stretch, but there will be teams locked into their positions before the eight games are done. Even after a months-long break, resting players isn’t out of the question with the postseason ahead.
The most intriguing challenger behind the Grizz are the Trail Blazers, who often close seasons like the Kool-Aid Man bursting through a brick wall, and who will be reunited with Nurk and Collins. In 2018-19, Portland finished the season 14-3; in 2017-18, they finished 18-7 (including a 13-game win streak); and in 2016-17, they finished 12-4. Miraculous conclusions are part of the franchise makeup thanks to Damian Lillard, who is so infamously clutch that he has his own time zone, and so deadly that a bad shot can detonate a roster if Lillard is taking it.
Portland’s final act will be cut short due to the condensed format, leaving no games to waste. Facing Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, and possibly the Lakers or Heat leaves no reprieve outside of the Nets, who will be without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant the rest of the way. (And even if they’re the most beatable among the group, Spencer Dinwiddie won’t let you by without wearing you out.)
Just behind the Blazers are the Pelicans, who are easier to believe in than the Kings, who, when we last left off, were not on the best terms with some of their best players. If Marvin Bagley III has recovered from his foot injury in the interim, then Sacramento has a better shot to make up its 3.5-game gap. Before the break, the team had edged its way back into the playoff picture with a surprising 13-7 run, considering that it came on the heels of two losing streaks, one eight games long and the other six. A “hot streak” matters far less after pressing pause for a couple of months.
New Orleans’s second-half emergence after Zion’s debut, on the other hand, feels more permanent. With two games remaining against the Kings, one against the Magic, and one against the Spurs, the Pelicans’ schedule is the easiest among the bubble teams. The time off did favors for Phoenix, who will probably see Kelly Oubre Jr. return for the rest of the 2019-20 season. That they’re even headed to Disney is a testament to their unexpectedly successful start to the season. The Suns have won more than two consecutive games only once this season, in early November. It’s still meaningful; after years, Devin Booker will finally be playing for something late in the season. As for the Aldridge-less Spurs, who are outmatched against the Grizzlies’ odds, the Blazers’ experience, and the Pelicans’ talent, it’s still an all-expenses-paid plus we’re-paying-you vacation to the middle of Florida.