The NBA is weighing several options for its return to play. Going to World Cup-style group play might solve many of the issues the league faces.
The first place to start is to say simply there is no perfect solution to finish the 2020 NBA season.
The now-two-month hiatus will indelibly put a damper on this season. It will forever be the season interrupted by the coronavirus. Put an asterisk, put a mark beside it or call it whatever you want, the season will end and there will need to be some context added to the champion.
Unlike the lockout-shortened years of 1999 and 2012, the league is going to have to do something different to finish the season. Those seasons were shortened from the beginning, they were a sprint to the playoffs that at least resembled a regular-season — home games, road trips and playoff chases.
This season is different. It was interrupted past its three-quarter pole. Teams will have to congregate in one location, eschewing home-court advantage and all the spoils from the season before. The format itself is going to have to be different.
The league is still trying to figure out that format. They reportedly sent a memo to teams asking their input and opinions on several return-to-play formats.
The NBA is going to have to strike a balance between rewarding the regular season and making the trip to Orlando and Disney worth the while for every team that shows up there. And they will have to do so while maintaining something resembling the integrity of the season.
There are a number of ideas going out through the Internet — and likely within NBA circles — to determine how to finish this season. The latest that seems to be taking hold is to conduct a World Cup-style group play system, as detailed by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.
Of all the ideas that have been circulated from starting straight out with the playoffs, finishing some type of regular season or using some play-in tournament, the group play idea seems to be the best to balance all the competing interests, giving teams a chance to get into a rhythm and starting a regular-feeling postseason.
The NBA is in a no-win situation. The only victory from the league at this point is returning in some fashion and getting to the end of the season — providing the television product and live sports fans want and declaring a champion for continuity and legacy.
There is going to be no solution that solves everything for every team.
There is no perfect solution for the teams at the top that have a real chance of winning the title. There is no perfect solution for the teams in the middle fighting for playoff positioning.
There is no perfect solution for the teams fighting at the bottom of the playoffs like the Orlando Magic. There is no perfect solution for the teams chasing the final playoff spot. There is no perfect solution for teams outside the playoff chase who get dragged to the site.
Damian Lillard distilled these problems most clearly in an interview with Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports. He said he would not play if his Portland Trail Blazers had no chance to make the playoffs. No team has much of a reason to play or put their best players on the court — let alone go through a months-worth of training camp just to play a few games and go home with nothing to play for.
The NBA has to find a balance to make showing up at the site worth everyone’s time. If everyone is going to go through the work of preparing to play again and the effort of staying at Disney, it needs to be worth their while.
Group play balances many interests
For a team like the Orlando Magic fighting at the back end of the playoffs, they should favor some format that forces them to play their way into the playoffs. A young team like the Magic would benefit more from playing and winning meaningful games rather than going straight into the postseason.
And everyone is going to need to play games before the playoffs start. The Orlando Magic certainly want that for a chance to catch the Brooklyn Nets for seventh. But that gives teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards little incentive.
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Playing a short regular season would be tricky for that reason. It does not give every team the chance to catch up and leads to short or unnecessary stays to get to the end of the season.
Group play eliminates that by putting everyone on somewhat equal footing. It creates pressure games that the top teams are likely to win and giving them proper warmup time while giving teams outside the playoffs a chance to get in.
The league could even look to do something similar to the NHL and separate out the top four teams in each conference and give them automatic passes to the playoffs to ensure they can advance.
By separating teams into four groups of five and having each team play the others in the group twice, you give everyone eight guaranteed games before the Playoffs. That is enough time for teams to ramp up to the postseason.
In the World Cup, they take the top two teams in each group for a 16-team knockout tournament. The NBA could do something more similar to the NHL and give a bye to the top teams to ensure they make the postseason.
They could either go conference-less — 20 teams are either in the Playoffs or within five games of the playoffs, eight in the East and 12 in the West. Or they could invite the top 10 teams from each conference to the campus site and create two groups of five to play their way into the Playoffs — either a 16-team playoff or an 8-team playoff.
O’Connor did a good job laying out what this would look like and what the groups might be. It solves many of the league’s problems.
It creates an incentive for every team to play and compete for something while giving a fair regular-season finale to get teams warmed up for the Playoffs.
If the league wants to maintain conferences — which appears to be at least of some interest for the league to avoid setting a precedent of crossing conferences — it could give guarantees to the top two teams in the conference and advance teams from there.
So the Eastern Conference could look like this:
The league could then either go to an eight-team playoff with only the second-place team in each group advancing to the next round. Or the league could keep it at 16 teams and advance all but one team out of each group.
Everyone has the chance to compete
This mode gives every team in the campus site the chance to make the playoffs. And that is really all anyone wants.
For the Orlando Magic, it gives them the chance to play their way in. It puts their young team in a pressure situation to make the playoffs. And that is what the Magic should want above all else.
More than anything else, the Magic want to win meaningful games and get experience playing and winning games with playoff intensity. The wins at the end of last season — especially the clinching win over the Boston Celtics — were extremely valuable to the team and its development.
The NBA has to find a balance between respecting the regular season and giving everyone who arrives in the bubble a chance to play for something. Group play accomplishes this. It gives every team on the site a chance to advance and then the league can resume its playoff as normal.
That is the tournament the league really wants to protect more than anything else. That is what everyone this season is building toward.
There are certainly no perfect answers to this problem.
For a team like the Magic, group play solves a lot of these problems. It gives them the chance to play meaningful games and play their way into the postseason.