The NBA is coming back after a vote by its board of governors Thursday approved commissioner Adam Silver’s plans to send 22 teams to Disney World for the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. As a reminder, the season will be finished under the following terms:
- All games will be played at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando.
- The 22 teams that make the trip to Disney will play eight regular-season games each.
- If the No. 9 seed in either conference is within four games of the No. 8 seed in that conference, they will be pushed into a play-in tournament. The No. 8 seed only needs to beat the No. 9 seed once, whereas the No. 9 seed must win twice.
- The first games will be played on July 31. Game 7 of the NBA Finals, if necessary, will be played on Oct. 12. Training camps for the 2020-21 season are expected to begin on Nov. 10, while the start of that season is projected for Dec. 1, though those dates are fluid.
Obviously, this is an enormous deviation from what teams expected when the season began. Teams were built with an October-June season in mind. But as has been repeated ad nauseam throughout the past several months, the NBA was not built to withstand a pandemic. There was not an ideal solution on the board, so the NBA found a compromise it could stomach. But some teams benefit more from that compromise than others. The big winner is a team that won’t even make the trek down to Central Florida.
Winner: Golden State Warriors
While this season’s heavy hitters are forced to duke it out under less than ideal circumstances, perhaps the NBA’s best roster is sitting pretty at home right now. With only around one month between the end of the 2020 NBA Finals and the projected opening of training camps for the following campaign, the 2020-21 season is going to be a war of attrition. Teams that make deep playoff runs in Orlando are going to be exhausted when next season arrives, and even those that don’t face injury risks at Disney because of all of the time off they’ve already had without proper gym access.
The Warriors have no such concerns. Their injured players, specifically Klay Thompson, can continue to recover in peace. They’ll be able to add talent through their lottery pick and the $17 million trade exception they earned by dealing Andre Iguodala. But most importantly, they will be fresh. Their opponents next season won’t be. Barring something unforeseen, the Warriors should be considered the early favorite for the 2021 championship based largely on that advantage.
Loser: Whoever loses the 2020 NBA Finals
On the other end of the attrition spectrum will be the loser of the 2020 NBA Finals. While most teams would happily trade a sloppy title defense for a championship in the first place, the Finals loser not only misses out on rings in 2020, but significantly hurts their chances in 2021 by having played so deep into the fall in 2020. That is especially true if that loser happens to be an older team like the Los Angeles Lakers or Houston Rockets. Beating the competition is already hard enough. Beating their own exhausted bodies may be too much to overcome.
Winner: Zion Williamson
Even if the Pelicans had passed the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed under normal circumstances, Zion Williamson likely wasn’t going to pass Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year. Even if Williamson had played in every Pelicans game for the rest of the season and Morant had missed every Grizzlies game, Morant would have played in 22 more total games. While Williamson’s peak was undoubtedly superior, voters were not going to be able to deny the totality of Morant’s case.
But imagine if Williamson gets his Pelicans up to No. 9 and they face Morant’s No. 8 Grizzlies twice in a play-in setting. Would winning consecutive head-to-head matchups with a playoff spot on the line in front of a captive television audience be enough to change minds? Possibly. Recency bias is a powerful force. On merit, this award should belong to Morant easily, but human voters are fallible, and if Williamson beats Morant convincingly enough, that might be enough to overcome the five months of games played in what feels like an increasingly distant past.
Loser: Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks
The Lakers and Bucks fought for home-court advantage all season long. Now? Not only is that out the window, but their competition doesn’t seem willing to grant them any sort of alternative advantage to make up for it. They, like the rest of the field, will be playing on neutral courts with neutral rules despite their sterling records. In fact, it could be argued that their superior regular seasons will actually do more harm than good at Disney.
Teams in the middle of each conference could potentially move around in the standings over the course of eight games. They have the flexibility to potentially jockey for certain matchups depending on what happens in Orlando. But the Bucks lead the Eastern Conference by 6.5 games and the Lakers lead the West by 5.5. They couldn’t escape the No. 1 seeds even if they wanted to. An 0-8 record for either would only lead to a lower seed if the teams directly beneath them dominated at Disney.
Give either team truth serum and they’d likely admit that, without home-court advantage, they’d prefer not to have the No. 1 seed. The Lakers are staring down the barrel of a first-round matchup with Zion and the Pelicans, whose starting lineup with him in the fold has decimated opponents by 26.3 points per 100 possessions. As unlikely as it seems, the Bucks could potentially draw Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round, whereas their pre-pandemic opponent would have been either the weakened Nets or the Orlando Magic. Injuries to the No. 4 seed in both conference (Indiana in the East, Utah in the West) could boost the current No. 6 seeds (Philadelphia in the East, Houston in the West) up onto the top seeds’ side of the bracket. The Lakers and Bucks are now, essentially, helpless. They can only watch what happens underneath them and hope for the best.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
On top of the systemic disadvantages this system presents them with, the Lakers and Bucks are also enormously invested in single players. LeBron James is the only ball handler on the Lakers’ roster. Giannis Antetokounmpo makes everything the Bucks do possible. If they get hurt before or during the postseason, their teams likely fall out of the championship race.
The Clippers, on the other hand, are about as pandemic-proof as any team in the field. Ivica Zubac is the only player on the roster to have played in all 64 Clippers games this season. Kawhi Leonard missed 13. Paul George missed 22. They are so deep that they could theoretically stay afloat through any short-term injury. They even have a positive net rating (plus-0.6) with Kawhi on the bench.
Those missed games did pose a potential risk to the Clippers, though. Their best players hardly spent any time on the court together, at least relative to other top teams. The James-Anthony Davis combination for the Lakers has played 1,318 minutes this season, for instance, while the Leonard-George duo spent only 760 minutes together. If the playoffs had started immediately, the Clippers wouldn’t have had any built-in chemistry to fall back on as other contenders do. At least with eight regular-season games in front of them, the Clippers, who presumably won’t load-manage in that span, can get their best lineups some more floor time together.
Loser: Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers
The Timberwolves own Brooklyn’s lottery-protected first-round pick. That pick was almost certain to convey had the season ended as planned. The Nets have a six-game lead over the current No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards. But with the play-in option on the table, the Wizards only need to make up two games over the eight-game regular-season slate to force a playoff between the two of them.
We have heard nothing definitive on the health of Durant and Irving. Until we hear otherwise, they should be assumed to be injured. The Nets fired their head coach, Kenny Atkinson, only four days before the season was suspended, so it would be reasonable to expect them to come out of the gates somewhat sloppily (even by the relatively low standards of this truncated regular season). They harbor serious trade aspirations, with Bradley Beal reported as a potential target, and an extra lottery pick couldn’t hurt on that front. The Nets aren’t going to tank away their playoff spot, but they’re hardly incentivized to fight for it, either. Owners typically prefer the No. 8 seed to a lottery pick because a home playoff game is worth around $3 million in gate and in-arena revenue. The No. 8 seed comes with two guaranteed home playoff games… under normal circumstances. This year? That revenue opportunity is gone.
The 76ers are in an arguably more precarious position. If Brooklyn’s pick doesn’t convey this offseason, it rolls over to next season. But the 76ers have Oklahoma City’s first-round pick, and if it doesn’t convey this season, it converts into a second-round pick. The Thunder pick is protected 1-20. It currently sits precariously at No. 22. Had the NBA gone directly to the postseason, that pick would have locked in for the 76ers. A bad eight-game stretch by a team in the other conference could cost Philly a first-round pick.
Winner: Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies held a 3.5-game lead in the standings when the season was suspended, but that says little about their true playoff odds. They had the NBA’s hardest-remaining schedule, while New Orleans and Portland both had easy ones remaining. FiveThirtyEight actually projected the Pelicans, not the Grizzlies, as the likely No. 8 seed out west.
But now? Those easy games that awaited the Pelicans and Blazers are off of the table because the worst teams aren’t even coming to Orlando. The Grizzlies will likely have to play a play-in tournament to get into the playoffs proper, but that is a chance the typical season would not have afforded them. Oh, and they’ll be far healthier in the process. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke were both injured when the season was suspended. They should be healthy now. Justise Winslow may even be able to make his Grizzlies debut. All in all, the Grizzlies likely have a better chance at making the postseason now than they did before the pandemic. If nothing else, they’ll have a chance to fight off their top competitor in a play-in.
Loser: Utah Jazz
Put the injury to Bojan Bogdanovic aside. Had the standings locked and the top 16 teams immediately started the playoffs, Utah would have been able to avoid Houston in the postseason for the first time since 2017. But now, with Bogdanovic out, there is only a 2.5-game difference between them and the No. 7 seeded Dallas Mavericks. If they slip all the way to No. 7, they’ve likely booked a date with the loaded Clippers. If they play well despite missing Bogdanovic, Houston now has eight games to sneak back up into the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup against them. The Jazz were likely thrilled by a possible first-round series against Oklahoma City. Their odds of getting it have declined significantly with the news of this format.