Although it’s a fair question whether or not any of this is a good idea in the first place, the NBA announced its slate of games for the Orlando restart on Friday. In case you haven’t been paying attention, 22 of the league’s 30 teams will play eight games apiece, beginning July 30, to establish final playoff seeding. There are 88 games scheduled over 15 days, ending in mid-August (assuming this goes down in relatively smooth fashion). Players have returned to their home markets, and it sure seems like this is happening. So with the slate of games in hand and the restart a month away, here are some of the early things to watch for.
1. One key thing to remember is that the NBA picked each team’s opponents based on their remaining schedules when the season shut down. Objectively, that was the best way to do this while maintaining a modicum of fairness, the caveat being that any club with multiple games on the docket against the eight cupcake teams that missed the bubble gets the short end. So for example, the Heat, who would originally have played the Knicks, Bulls, Pistons and Hornets twice each, now have arguably the hardest schedule with those eight games coming off the slate. There was no way to do this perfectly, and for the most part it makes sense. But I do feel for Miami, who will now play just one game against a team (Phoenix) not currently locked into the playoffs.
2. On the other hand, we should be careful putting too much stock into any of these matchups on paper. The Bucks were far and away the best regular-season team, and certainly aren’t a group you want to play in the bubble. At the same time, one of the big mysteries surrounding this entire thing is what type of physical condition players will be in after an unprecedented, bizarre hiatus, and how contending teams intend to manage minutes and playing time in preparation for the actual playoffs. There’s almost certainly some heightened injury risk, and a shortened timeframe to ramp up on-court activity. Even for players with easy access to playing and training for the last few months, there’s going to be an adjustment period. Point being, whether or not everyone actually competes in earnest for all eight seeding games might be somewhat touch-and-go.
3. With apologies to the Wizards, the only playoff spot truly up for grabs is the final spot in the West. Here is what that race looks like, for reference. The Suns are massive long shots, and the Spurs won’t have LaMarcus Aldridge (who had shoulder surgery three weeks ago).
8. Memphis (32-33)
9. Portland (29-37, -3.5 back)
10 (t). New Orleans (28-36, -3.5)
10 (t). Sacramento (28-36, -3.5)
12. San Antonio (27-36, -4.0)
13. Phoenix (26-39, -6.0)
The NBA has set this up to create additional drama: as long as the ninth-place team finishes within four games of the eighth-place team, those teams will play a short play-in round to get to the playoffs, with the eighth seed allowed to lose twice, and the ninth seed facing single elimination (think of it like a best-of-three series, with the higher-ranked team receiving a 1-0 head start).
The other thing to remember is that tiebreaks will be decided based on winning percentage, which gives Portland an inherent advantage, having played two more games than New Orleans and Sacramento—so if those teams finish with the same record in Orlando, the Blazers will get the tiebreak by a tiny percentage, which could determine who gets to play the Grizzlies in the play-in round. The Pelicans swept all four games against the Blazers this season, and the Kings were 2-2 against them, but none of that will matter in that scenario. Portland is expected to have Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins available in some capacity, but will not have Trevor Ariza, which may or may not be important.
4. Much has already been made (and rumored) surrounding the NBA cabal’s shadowy desire to get Zion Williamson to the playoffs. Although the league is obviously happy to put their most entertaining teenage talent on national television as much as possible, the Pelicans had the easiest remaining schedule of all 30 teams. That is why they ended up with, yes, a very easy schedule on paper. New Orleans starts off against Utah (on opening night) and the Clippers before playing Memphis Aug. 3 in what will arguably be the most important game on the entire bubble. The Pelicans also play the Kings twice, and have friendly matchups with the Wizards, Spurs and Magic. So the odds of at least earning a play-in spot against the Grizzlies are somewhat in New Orleans’ favor here. Plus, Memphis and Portland have significantly harder schedules. Whoever survives will probably have to play the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, so it may not be a long stay.
5. The Lakers-Clippers game that headlines the first night of the restart on July 30 should be must-watch. I’m not expecting the quality of play to mirror the Bolshoi Ballet or anything, but I don’t think either team will take the matchup lightly. If those teams match up in the Western Conference Finals, it won’t quite be a Staples Center derby, but it’s probably one of the most entertaining series on the table. Whether the league can make these feel like playoff game on television is another story, but this first Lakers-Clippers game—and how it’s presented—should be interesting, and potentially indicative.
6. Speaking of which, does home-court advantage really matter in an empty arena in Orlando? Probably not. So I’m curious to see if any teams do anything to jockey for specific first-round matchups. It’s not quite tanking, nor is it good optics for the league, but say you’re the 76ers, you’re currently in sixth place, and if you stay there (versus moving up into fourth or fifth), you get to avoid Milwaukee until the conference finals. Not that playing Boston and Toronto in the first two rounds is that much more inviting… but just saying. The Sixers actually have an extremely light schedule ahead, so leapfrogging into third might be more attractive.
7. Can Dallas find a way out of seventh? If they do, it means avoiding a first-round playoff matchup with the Clippers, which nobody wants. The Mavericks are a game and a half behind the Thunder and Rockets, who are currently tied for fifth and sixth, and the Jazz are just a game ahead of those teams. The Nuggets are more firmly in third. How this general West morass shakes out will be a worthwhile subplot. A Clippers-Rockets first-round series would probably be a bloodbath.
8. If you missed it, 16 out of 302 players tested positive for COVID-19 on June 23. It would be foolish to think that won’t keep happening inside the bubble. The NBA’s plan seems prepared for that to happen. If those incidents are isolated, to say nothing of that person’s individual health, it seems the games will push forward. But what the NBA has yet to adequately address is what type of critical mass it would take to halt play again entirely. I get that the league probably doesn’t want to talk worst-case scenarios right now, but it would at least be nice to know, concretely, that those decisions will be made based on protocol (and to know what that protocol is).
It’s not hard to envision a scenario where one team’s party has a high number of cases that borders on prohibitive, or that severely limits their ability to compete. Can the show still go on if even one team can’t play? I’m obviously not an expert on infectious diseases, and hopefully that type of scenario doesn’t come close to fruition. But there’s a lot hinging on hope, which isn’t the most comfortable feeling.
9. Anyway, let’s hope this works. Watching five or six games every single day doesn’t quite generate March Madness-level excitement—it may end up feeling more like Summer League, honestly—but at this point, it’s better than no basketball. Credit to the NBA and Players Association for their very public commitment to keeping the focus on social justice and the battle for change that’s taking place daily across the country. The hope has to be that players can use the platform to amplify the right messages. The return to play will be treated as a welcome distraction, but that distraction shouldn’t mask what the real issues are. It’s always been easy to just pat the NBA on the back for being progressive, but this is a chance for the league and the players to take that a step further.