The first thing the NBA had to do to return in the midst of a pandemic was, obviously, figure out how to deal with the pandemic—create a bubble, source routine testing, create protocols for what would happen if a player got sick, and, apparently, purchase enough fishing equipment for the entire NBA to go fishing every single day. The second thing was to figure out what the competitive format of the return would look like. Sports leagues have developed their competitive structures over decades—how would they deal with a sudden five-month-long gap right in the middle of their season? Baseball hadn’t started yet, so MLB just decided to play a shortened season. MLS decided to play a special one-off tournament in the middle of its season, and is supposedly planning to continue with the rest of its regular season afterward. The NHL cut straight to the playoffs, but an expanded version that features 24 of the league’s 31 teams.
The NBA took the most convoluted path of all. When the regular season stopped on March 11, just about the entire playoff picture had been figured out. There was a clear gap between the eighth and final playoff team in each conference and the ninth seed—in the East, the Magic had a 5.5-game lead on the Wizards; in the West, the Grizzlies had a 3.5-game lead on the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, and Kings. And the 1-seed in each conference had a commanding five-game lead on each 2-seed. Some of the teams in between 2 and 7 were tightly packed, but that wasn’t too big of a deal. After all, one of the biggest incentives to improve their seeding after qualifying for the playoffs is so that they can win home-court advantage … which will not exist with every team in the Orlando bubble playing games on the same courts in front of no fans.
The league probably could have cut straight to the postseason bracket. Instead, the NBA invited the 16 teams in postseason spots plus six additional teams within six games of the final spot in each conference, and will have each team play eight games to determine playoff seeding. If after these eight games the 9-seed in either conference is within four games of the 8-seed, it will trigger a play-in tournament where the 9-seed can qualify for the postseason by winning two games while the 8-seed can eliminate the 9-seed by winning once. (Remember what I said about it being convoluted?)
It’s strange. It feels like the NBA should have tried to make the bubble as small as possible because of the ridiculously complex logistics of the situation and the ethics of using COVID tests to ensure safe gameplay while our nation’s capacity to test for the disease remains limited. But the league chose to add about a hundred extra players and countless personnel and to extend the process by several weeks, just for the relatively small chance that a 9-seed could overtake the 8-seed before inevitably being crushed by the 1-seed. But since they’re playing, here are the things that stand out most to me about the schedule:
The Pelicans’ Perfect Road
Since only teams in the playoff hunt were invited to the Disney bubble, most of them are good. And yet somehow, one of the teams in the field is scheduled to play eight opponents with a combined winning percentage below .500. While the NBA invited 22 teams to Disney, it feels like the 8-game run-up to the postseason can be made interesting by only one: The New Orleans Pelicans, whose schedule has set them up perfectly for a furious dash to the 8-seed.
Six of New Orleans’s eight opponents have records below .500. The Pellies will play the most cursed rosters in Orlando. They have games against the Wizards and Nets, both sub-.500 teams missing at least three of their best players; they have a game against the Spurs, who are four games out of the playoff chase and without their best player; they have two games against the Kings, who actually have the same record as New Orleans, but have seen their roster decimated by injuries and positive COVID tests; New Orleans’s two games against actual good teams (the Jazz and Clippers) are its first two games, meaning the Pelicans will likely be playing the Wizards, Spurs, and at least one of their games against the Kings after those teams have already been eliminated from postseason contention. Plus, they have a game against the Grizzlies, the team ahead of them in the 8-slot. If they beat Memphis, it’s possible for them to actually surpass the Grizzlies in the standings by the end of the eight-game seeding schedule, allowing them to play the play-in games as the 8-seed instead of the 9-seed.
How did they get this incredible schedule? Well, they already had it. The restart schedules are made up of games that were already on teams’ regular-season schedules, except without all the teams that didn’t make the Disney cut. New Orleans had a massively front-loaded schedule—it had the toughest strength of schedule in the NBA before the All-Star break, but only three of its 18 remaining scheduled games were against a team over .500. As it turns out, New Orleans’s eight-game schedule is actually, on the whole, tougher than the remaining games it had when the original schedule was canceled—by weeding out matchups against teams like the Knicks and Hawks, the average winning percentage of the Pelicans’ remaining opponents bumped from .441 to .495. But that sub-.500 strength of schedule in a field composed of playoff-bound and semi-playoff-adjacent rosters is still incredible.
If I had to give one competitive reason the NBA should have an eight-game run-up to the playoffs, it’s the fact that canceling the end of the regular season was unfair to New Orleans. In March, with budding megastar Zion Williamson back from injury and a highly favorable schedule, the Pelicans arguably should have been favored to make the playoffs even though they were 3.5 games down on the Grizzlies with under 20 games to go. At the time, FiveThirtyEight gave New Orleans a 60 percent chance to qualify for the postseason, despite the big deficit. With the new format, that’s dropped to 48 percent. But even though their road is harder than it would’ve been, the Pellies are the team this eight-game restart is hypothetically meant for.
The Lakers’ Postseason Test (or Maybe Not)
Because every team’s schedule consists of already-existing games, most teams’ strengths of schedule stayed roughly the same. The Nuggets had the third-toughest remaining schedule of the 22 teams before the season was canceled, and now they have the fourth toughest; the Sixers had the second easiest before the season was canceled, and now they still have the second easiest.
Cumulative opponent winning percentage, old schedule (at the time the season was suspended) vs. new schedule. pic.twitter.com/46L1z1HHH7— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) June 27, 2020
There’s been only one big jump—and it’s affecting the team that NBA fans are probably most eager to see: LeBron James and Anthony Davis’s Los Angeles Lakers. Under the original schedule, the Lakers were slated to ease into the postseason, thanks to a comically easy Chicago–Golden State–Minnesota-Sacramento-Phoenix finish. But now that those games have been wiped off the board, the Lakers are left with one of the toughest schedules in the tournament. The top-seeded team in the West will play the Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Thunder, and Rockets—the teams in the 2-6 spots in the Western Conference, plus the 2-seed from the East in the Raptors. The only team they will play that’s not in a playoff spot right now is the Kings.
The question is, how will LeBron and the Lakers handle this run? On the one hand, they’ll want to tune up after four months without basketball. They’ll want to actually compete in these games to get into game shape before the playoffs. On the other, the Lakers don’t really have anything to play for—they’re 5.5 games clear of the Clippers for the 1-seed, and being the 1-seed really doesn’t matter in a competition with no home-court advantage—and they probably won’t want to reveal too much of their strategy considering they’re playing every single team they could potentially play in between the second round and the Finals. The Lakers’ eight-game restart could be a fantastic preview of just about any meaningful Western Conference playoff series, or they could just chill.
The Disaster Battle
There are two teams in Orlando that bear absolutely no resemblance to functional NBA squads. One is the Washington Wizards, who should have been allowed to stay at home. They’re 5.5 games out of the playoffs, and will be without their three best players. Bradley Beal, who was second in the league averaging 30.5 points per game this year, is skipping the restart due to a rotator cuff injury; John Wall remains out with an Achilles tear suffered during the 2018-19 season; Davis Bertans opted out of the restart due to the Wizards’ unlikelihood of making the playoffs, his injury history, and his upcoming free agency. In March, the Wizards were already the worst team in the field, and over the last four months they got worse. Their most commonly used lineup of the players they’re sending to Orlando played only 15 minutes together this season; it features deep reserve rookies Garrison Mathews and Anzejs Pasecniks.
The other nonfunctional squad is the Brooklyn Nets, the 7-seed in the East. Brooklyn also has been decimated by injuries: Like Wall, Kevin Durant is still out with an Achilles tear sustained during the 2019 Finals; Kyrie Irving had season-ending shoulder surgery; Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince tested positive for COVID-19. Durant, Irving, and Dinwiddie were the team’s three best players, and Prince was fourth on the team in minutes played. The Nets brought in Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley to shore things up, but then Beasley tested positive for COVID too. Irving and Dinwiddie are the team’s two primary point guard options. Without them, they’ll be forced to give some point guard minutes to Crawford (40 years old and not exactly a traditional point guard) and Chris Chiozza (a G-Leaguer cut in December by … the Wizards).
Both of these teams are abominations. FiveThirtyEight says the Wizards’ and Nets’ current rosters would win 26 and 32 games, respectively, in an 82-game season, but I feel like that’s being generous—I don’t think FiveThirtyEight’s algorithms are capable of capturing what an NBA offense will look like when it doesn’t have a point guard. The Nets lost their first Orlando scrimmage 99-68, with Dzanan Musa leading the way with 11 points.
We are blessed. These two teams play each other in the second game of the restart. And if Washington wins that game, it’ll only need to be one game better than the Nets over the other seven games to force a play-in. And that’s basically what I’m rooting for: Three games between these two squads that barely seem like NBA teams. The winner gets to play Giannis Antetokounmpo.