The NBA just unveiled its plan to finish the remainder of the 2020 season, and things are about to get interesting. I recently discussed some of the many compelling possibilities at play because of the strange timing of this season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, according to reports, the league is inviting 22 teams to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., to play eight final regular-season games before beginning the playoffs, which may feature a play-in for the eighth seed if the ninth-seeded team is fewer than four games out. The NBA’s choice to play regular-season games before the playoffs has created the most consequential regular-season games in recent history.
To avoid the possibility of tanking, the NBA has stated that the draft lottery odds will be determined by teams’ records on March 11, the day the season was suspended. This decision avoids the possibility of teams in Orlando intentionally losing in order to improve their draft odds. This solution also bodes well for the eight teams that were not invited to Orlando, as their bad seasons will not be in vain. However, while teams in Orlando cannot improve their draft positioning by losing, they are capable of significantly worsening their pick.
The six teams invited to Orlando currently sitting outside of the playoffs are in a puzzling spot. These teams need to get at least within four games of the eighth seed to even have a chance at making the playoffs. Furthermore, they are not playing against the full NBA; they are only playing against the top two-thirds of the league, making their chances of a strong finish even more unlikely. The Washington Wizards are currently 5.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic. If the Wizards can miraculously earn a play-in and win, they have the honor of getting run over by the dominant first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. For reference, the Wizards are currently 28.5 games behind the Bucks and have only won 24 games this season in total. Making the playoffs would mean the Wizards would then finish with a less valuable draft pick as they would no longer be in the lottery and would receive the draft pick that matches their playoff finish. On the other hand, if the Wizards do poorly, a likely outcome regardless of how hard they try, they will keep their lottery spot from before the season was suspended — the ninth pick in the draft with a better chance of a top-three pick.
Similarly, the Phoenix Suns will most likely receive the 10th pick in the draft so long as they avoid making the playoffs. Obviously, none of these teams will intentionally miss the playoffs for a better draft pick. Even when teams tank, they do so by assembling talentless rosters, not by telling players to lose. The actual predicament is whether fans should want their team to sneak into a hopeless playoff. For example, in 2018, the Denver Nuggets lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the final game of the season in which the winner would advance to the playoffs. The Timberwolves lost in the first round to the Houston Rockets while the Nuggets received the 14th pick in the draft and drafted Michael Porter Jr., a player with superstar potential. In hindsight, losing to the Timberwolves was a blessing in disguise for the Nuggets, as they are now one of the best-positioned teams in the NBA.
For the teams that were actually in the playoff picture before the season suspension, these final eight games are far more significant. Many of these teams are precariously situated in their playoff seeding and could easily fall or rise in the standings. The very top and bottom teams of each conference have little ability to make any meaningful moves. The teams in the middle are the ones that could move a lot. With only eight games, there is very little margin for error. The Nuggets are only 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Rockets and just 1.5 games behind the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, with the ability to take the tiebreaker away from the Clippers in a head-to-head matchup. For the Nuggets, these eight games could mean the difference between the second seed or the sixth seed. Similar situations exist for the second through sixth seeds in both conferences, as they all could easily move up and down in the standings, a possibility made much more likely by the fact that teams will not be in the same rhythm as they were when they last played in March.
These eight games will be anything but ordinary. In an increasingly rare situation, we have meaningful regular-season games to watch and no real way to predict where they will go. This should be fun.
Austin Barish is a rising sophomore in the College. All About Buckets appears online every other week.