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NBA's 22-Team Format Offers Wild Playoff Possibilities

The NBA's return is looming.

Early Tuesday morning, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported a 22-team field is expected to take residence in Orlando, Florida, for the remainder of the season. Resumed play would include regular-season games and a play-in tournament for postseason berths.

The board of governors is expected to pass the format on Thursday, with action restarting sometime in July.

NBA's 22-Team Format Proposal

The details of the format remain unclear. The plan projects to include 13 teams from the Western Conference and nine from the Eastern Conference. In addition to each conference's eight playoff teams, five-time All-Star Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns would battle for the West's final playoff spot. The Washington Wizards would be the lone non-playoff team from the East.

The 16 playoff teams are based on the standings when the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. The race for the last playoff spot in each conference is where things get murky.

In the West, the Memphis Grizzlies secured a 3.5-game lead for the eighth spot. Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio were all within striking distance of Memphis with roughly 20 games left on the schedule, with Phoenix six games back. In the East, the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic held a 5.5-game advantage over Washington.

As it currently stands, here is the playoff picture:

Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Houston Rockets

(4) Utah Jazz vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder

In the hunt: (9) Portland, (10) New Orleans, (11) Sacramento, (12) San Antonio, (13) Phoenix

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets

(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Miami Heat vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

In the hunt: (9) Washington

A lot of questions arise: what advantage would the current eighth-seed have over the teams on the outside looking in? Would vying teams have to beat them multiple times based on how far back they are in the standings? Memphis had the league's second-toughest remaining schedule while New Orleans had the easiest. Is there a way to take that into account?

I don't have an answer for every question, but here is a proposed bracket I had in mind for the Western Conference play-in tournament. (This is based on the current standings. It's vague how the remaining regular-season games will influence seeding):

Potential NBA Playoff Bracket

First round:

(11) Sacramento vs. (12) San Antonio (single elimination)

(10) New Orleans vs. (13) Phoenix (single elimination)

Second round:

(8) Memphis vs. winner of NO/PHO (double elimination for MEM; single elimination for NO/PHO)

(9) Portland vs. winner of SAC/SA (single elimination)

Final Round:

MEM/NO/PHO winner vs. POR/SAC/SA winner (double elimination for MEM; single elimination for any matchup not including MEM)

As the incumbent playoff team, Memphis would need to be beaten twice. This permits the Grizzlies a three-game maximum as an advantage to a four-game maximum for New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix. Portland would also have a three-game maximum but would face the extra hurdle of defeating Memphis twice.

Eighth-seeded Orlando and ninth-seeded Washington would play a three-game series for the final playoff spot in the East. This gives them the same number of maximum games as Memphis and Portland, the presumptive eighth and ninth seeds in the West.

The 22-team format could have some upsets we don't normally see in the early rounds. The play-in tournament could add excitement by resembling the win-or-go-home style of the NCAA Tournament. The sense of urgency, along with a neutral site, could see top-seeded teams heading home earlier than accustomed to and result in fun matchups in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals.

At this point, any form of basketball would be welcome. We'll have more answers on Thursday.

This article was originally published June 2, 2020.

UPDATE (June 5, 2020): The NBA's Board of Governors approved the 22-team format for a return to basketball in late July by a 29-1 vote — The Portland Trail Blazers were the only team to vote against.

Each team will play eight games to determine seeding, then a possible play-in tournament for the final spot in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference was discussed. All games will be played on the Disney campus in Orlando, Florida.

The NBAPA is expected to approve the plan in a separate vote on Friday, June 5.


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