When the NBA’s Board of Governors announced a 22-team resume of play in Disney World on Thursday, the return of basketball made immediate national headlines. Fans had finally found a streak of basketball hope amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and contending teams knew they would have a chance to compete for a title in 2020.
With basketball set to return July 30, many important questions continue to swirl in the basketball world. Why did the league decide on 22 teams, and what happens to the teams that did not qualify? How will playoff seeding work with only eight regular-season games? And, most importantly, who has the best chance at winning it all in the first-ever NBA Finals at Walt Disney World’s ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex?
The reasoning behind a 22-team format, and implications of it
The decision to invite 22 teams comes down to many important factors, the first of which was cutting out teams already near postseason elimination. From the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls won’t be taking the trip to Disney. From the West, it was the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The league has decided that the top eight teams in each conference will be joined by teams that were within six games of eighth place in their respective conference. In the East, this means the Washington Wizards join the field. In the more crowded West, the Portland Trailblazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns will also be heading to Orlando.
For the teams already out, the NBA Draft has been postponed and will now be held on Oct. 15 in Brooklyn. The NBA Draft Lottery is scheduled for Aug. 25.
The potential “play-in” games
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 22-team Orlando format is the possibility of a mini play-in tournament to determine the final playoff seeding. In every other season, the top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.
The league outlined a complicated protocol for teams currently out of playoff contention to get into the postseason. After the eight regular-season games, if the current No. 8 seed is four or fewer games ahead of the No. 9 seed, a play-in tournament would ensue. If the No. 8 seed was more than four games ahead of the nine, there would be no play-in. For the No. 9 seed to overcome the No. 8 in a play-in tournament to make the postseason, it would have to beat the No. 8 seed twice in three games. Complicated? Very much so. At the same time, this mini play-in tournament could be some of the most exciting basketball of all time.
The new NBA plan has given a few teams a new life. For the Wizards, they go from a team on track to finish as the No. 9 seed to a team that, with the right luck and solid play, can be contending for the title in a few weeks. The same goes for many more teams in the West, including Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento.
Which team has the best chance at winning the Finals?
Basketball fans should expect to see more upsets than usual in the 2020 postseason. With the season picking up after an incredibly long leave of absence, it is unknown which teams will show up ready to win a title in late July.
With that being said, experts continually predict a face off between Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, but there are certainly other big contenders in both conferences. Could a dark horse team such as Philadelphia rise through adversity and make it all the way? Or could a western underdog like Denver do the same? And since this is going to be an entirely new format and an experiment for all teams involved, could the Portland Trailblazers defy the odds, surpass Memphis, capture the No. 8 seed, and win it all?
It’s not likely, but with the new format, everyone has a chance.