The NBA wants to finish out its season in as traditional a manner as is possible within the given circumstances, and that is perfectly understandable.
We don’t have all of the details on the plan that commissioner Adam Silver will present to his board of governors in a conference call Thursday, but we’ve heard enough about the league’s preferred playoff format to conclude that its top priority is maintaining the integrity of 2019-20 the season rather than staging a first-of-its-kind tournament that history would have little choice but to regard in isolation.
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In other words, there will be no COVID Invitational, but, rather, a traditional East vs. West 16-team field that preserves the credits each team accumulated during the first five months of the regular season and also grants them the same opportunity to improve upon that position as would have existed had the season continued uninterrupted.
At least, that’s the takeaway from the most recent reporting from ESPN, a company that, it should be mentioned, has a vested and considerable interest in the nature of the proceedings, given its status as a broadcast rights-holder.
According to the network, the NBA season would resume in Orlando in late July with a field that includes each of the 22 teams that entered the shutdown within striking distance of the postseason. Those teams would then play eight games apiece, after which the top eight teams in each conference would compete in their usual best-of-seven playoff rounds, with seeds awarded based on overall record, the results of the eight post-shutdown games included.
The one modification is the potential for a three-game play-in series between the eighth and ninth seeds, which would take place if the ninth seed finishes the regular season within four games of the eighth seed.
That’s a lot of words to describe a concept that simply attempts to replicate the situation each team was in at the time of the shutdown. The teams that were already in are in. The teams that had a chance to be in will still have that chance. And the play-in scenario will make up for the reduced number of regular-season games that the hopefuls have to make up the necessary ground.
For the Sixers, none of it really matters. They entered the break facing the near-certainty of entering the playoffs with either the fourth, fifth, or sixth seed in the East. At the bottom of that range, they held a virtually insurmountable 8½-game lead over the seventh-place Nets, leaving them involved in a three-way horse race with the Heat and Pacers: two games behind Miami, tied with Indiana.
Whichever team finishes as the sixth seed will likely face the Celtics, who are three games behind the second-place Raptors. The other two will face each other.
Because all games will be held on a neutral court in an empty arena, the identity of the higher seed will be of little consequence. The Sixers won’t get to play in front of their home fans, but they also won’t have to play on the road. Unless a neutral court counts as the road.
That’s pretty much how it goes for any of the variables that are still within the Sixers’ control. For instance, your intuition probably says you’d rather face the Heat or Pacers in the first round than the Celtics. But the Sixers have beaten the Celtics in four of five games this season and have lost to the Heat and Pacers in a combined five of seven.
At the same time, do you really want to face Brad Stevens after he’s had three months to prepare? Maybe, if that means avoiding Jimmy Butler after he’s had three months to rest. Either way, the top-seeded Bucks are likely to loom in the conference semifinals, which means nothing before that is likely to matter.
The most interesting thing to see in all of this will be the impact that the break will have on the individual players.
Think about the way in which we typically regard the offseason. At the end of the finished season, we look forward to the potential transformations that a four-month layoff can bring. Will Ben Simmons come back with a jump shot? Will Joel Embiid come back with a new body? Just how different will Year X+1 be from Year X?
Now, think about this: Between the Sixers’ last game in the 2018-19 playoffs and the first game of the 2019-20 regular season was a stretch of 164 days. If the NBA season resumes July 31, players such as Simmons and Embiid will be coming off a layoff of 141 days.
While it seems silly to think that the current stretch might be as productive as a normal offseason, given the economic shutdown, it also seems silly to think that millionaire athletes who are surrounded by a web of support staff and have access to limitless resources will have spent three straight months doing jigsaw puzzles and pacing around middle-class apartments while waiting for their governor to tell them that it is OK to touch a basketball.
We are going to see some players who have used this time to become versions of themselves that are dramatically improved over the ones who would have participated in the playoffs had they started on time. The teams that have those players could very well be the teams that remain on their feet the longest.
The more I think about it, the more I think the next few months will be as viable a litmus test for the Sixers as we presumed an ordinary playoff run would be.
Brett Brown has had three months to prepare for five opponents. Simmons and Embiid have had three months to work on their bodies and their psyches and their games. The front office has had three months to compare notes with the head coach and consider the decisions they will need to make after the season.