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How To Make a Return To Play Work

Changes may need to be made to incentivize players.

NBA: All Star-Saturday Night Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Let me just start with this — I do not envy the position Adam Silver currently finds himself in. Play has been suspended for over two months now, and while there is optimism building that the season will eventually be played out, there are still quite a few major hurdles to clear.

The main obstacles include creating a safe “bubble” for NBA players and (presumably) their families at either Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando or in Las Vegas where the league has had ample success with it’s Summer League, as well as basic human needs in this climate such as procedures around testing.

IF they are able to clear those hurdles, though, it still becomes a bit of a risk vs. reward factor for players, staffers, and their family members. That is, their needs to be some sort of incentive for ALL players to want to come back, not just those on playoff teams. While in theory the NBA could just begin with the playoffs after the training camp period (reportedly scheduled to start June 21), the league has a very clear threshold they want/need to hit of 70 games in order to get local television money. Here’s where everyone stands right now:

Maybe the players would all want to come back, but I highly doubt the veterans on a 20-47 Atlanta Hawks team are going to be too excited about going through a month-long training camp to play three games.

Similarly, how in the world would the Timberwolves feel like it was a worthwhile risk to play D’Angelo Russell or Karl-Anthony Towns those last few games? I guess you could argue the front office would want to see them play together more, but those two are already locked up on long-term deals. Playing six random, meaningless games in July wouldn’t be worth it. It makes no sense.

I’m sure the players understand the business side of things and how much money is at stake, so they probably could get enough guys to come back and play out the season with G-League and two-way players. If the NBA wants teams who are already out of the race to come back and even pretend to care about the games, though, there needs to be more at stake.

There have been different iterations of this thrown around, and I’m going to acknowledge right away that there will likely be holes in my idea, but I’d like to see the NBA test out a pseudo-March Madness bracket, at least for the beginning of the postseason.

Why not seed each conference 1-15 after you reach 70 games? Give the top-7 teams in each conference what would be “normal” playoff berths and a locked spot in what would be the conference quarterfinals. Then, let teams 8-15 play a single elimination tournament for the final playoff spot.

It’s not perfect, mainly because teams such as the Grizzlies (3.5 games ahead of 9th) and Magic (5.5 games ahead of 9th) will feel that they shouldn’t have to win that single elimination tournament for a playoff spot that they’ve already (sort of) earned.

The reality, though, is that there is no perfect solution. If the season is shortened to 70 games, New Orleans, Portland, and Sacramento will surely feel they were robbed of a chance to snag the 8th seed in the West over the last few weeks of the season. The schedule was supposed to be pretty light for those three teams, while Memphis was about to endure a grueling stretch to close out the season.

The bigger issue that I see is that the single elimination tournament could bring an increased risk of injury, as the NBA would likely try to play the tournament (3 games) in 4 days. Playing three games in four nights, then getting ready for a 7-game series immediately after, could compromise player safety. If the NBA were more willing to allow an off-day between each round of the single elimination tournament, the plan becomes more viable. Assuming the NBA would agree to the extra off-day (making the tournament a safer idea for the players), think of all the intriguing scenarios we could see play out.

Who would emerge out of the West? Would Ja Morant and the upstart Grizzlies come back fresh and race into the playoffs? Would Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram showcase their star power and give us a must-see first-round playoff series with the Lakers? Could Damian Lillard get scorching hot and, with a healthier Jusuf Nurkic by his side, not only get the Blazers into the playoffs, but make life a little difficult for the Lakers?

Lastly, what about our beloved Wolves? They’ve got no shot to make the playoffs at the moment, and in a series against any of the playoff teams or playoff hopefuls, they’d probably get waxed. In a single-elimination tournament, however, hot shooting can do wonders. We’ve seen it time and time again at the collegiate level, and it’s not all that hard to imagine the aforementioned Towns, should he choose to return, along with Russell and Malik Beasley getting scorching hot from beyond the arc, taking the Wolves on an improbable run to the playoffs.

Yeah, they’d get drilled by LeBron and the Lakers, but would we really care? At that point, they’d have already given us hope, and something to believe in moving into the 2020-21 season.

One possible revision would be to make the single-elimination tournament include only teams that, through 70 games, would not have already been eliminated from playoff contention in a normal 82-game season. In this iteration, you’re not giving teams who would’ve been eliminated under normal circumstances a shot, but you also don’t punish teams such as the Pelicans, Blazers, and Kings for the season being shortened.

For the Wolves, it gives them reason to come back and try to win games to keep pace and stay in the hunt. If they win a few games to start out, keep it rolling with the KAT, Russell, and Beasley and see just how far this new offense can take you. If you lose a few and are eliminated from contention, shut those guys down and gear up for next season.

Additionally, you wouldn’t completely short-change Orlando in the East, who has a pretty insurmountable lead for the final playoff spot.

Maybe I’m over-blowing how much intrigue there would be in who gets the right to get drilled by the Lakers in the first-round, but after the absence of sports and basketball in general, a four-team single-elimination tournament between the Grizzlies, Blazers, Pelicans, and Kings would be thrilling (I think). Even if the tournament would feature six teams (extending to the Spurs and Suns), that would only make for more intrigue. At full-health, Phoenix has just as good a shot as anyone to come out of that tournament. For reference, I present the top-five lineups that have played over 150 minutes together this season.

There isn’t one perfect solution to all of this, and commissioner Adam Silver is in an incredibly difficult position weighing the risk vs reward of resuming play. There have already been several players state on the record that they’re not completely comfortable coming back yet, such as James Harden, Larry Nance, Jr., and Joe Ingles, and you can’t blame any of them. Above anything else, the health of the players, staffers, and their families should be priority number one.

IF the NBA does in fact return, though, they would be wise to be a little bit creative with the playoff format.

What do we think? What would you do/suggest differently?