The Boston Celtics project to have a daunting playoff path if the NBA is to launch directly into its typical postseason format upon a potential summer restart.
But the possibility of the league testing a 1-16 seeding format could increase the degree of difficulty even further.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has expressed interest in the 1-16 format but has admitted that travel is the biggest impediment in a potential conferences-go-out-the-window format. So as the NBA ponders a single-site reboot to the 2019-20 season, 1-16 playoff seeding is something that Silver could pitch his owners in a season that would already be resuming under unique circumstances.
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Would the Celtics (and other Eastern Conference teams) be on board with that plan?
That vote might hinge on whether the league is planning any additional regular-season games before the playoffs. Some shuffling of the current standings could be advantageous for Boston, if only because the current 1-16 bracket is an absolute bear.
Under the current standings in a 1-16 field, Boston would be the fifth seed and draw the same first-round matchup against Philadelphia as the East-only bracket would deliver. The difference is Round 2 matchups and a possible matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers under the 1-16 format.
In fact, if higher seeds won out, Boston would have to beat the 12th-seeded Sixers, fourth-seeded Clippers, top-seeded Bucks, and second-seeded Lakers to emerge as champions in a 1-16 format. That’s a murderers' row of opponents and the case can be made it would be the four best teams in the entire postseason tournament.
Those four teams have the highest probability of wining the NBA Finals based on FiveThirtyEight’s projections at the time of the season being suspended. The Sixers, Clippers, Bucks and Lakers had a combined 83 percent chance to win the title, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, while Boston itself accounted for another 6 percent.
FiveThirtyEight also has a metric called “full-strength rating,” which rates teams based on having all of its top talent available. Sort teams by playoff full-strength rankings and the list goes, 1. Clippers, 2. Lakers, 3. 76ers, 4. Bucks. Boston is sixth with the Rockets one spot in front.
In a typical East-only bracket, the Celtics would swap out the Clippers for the Raptors in Round 2 (again, assuming higher seeds advance). It doesn’t alter Boston’s path all that much considering the Bucks and Lakers would come later, but it's undeniably more desirable to face Kawhi Leonard’s former team than having to deal with him and Paul George on the same Clippers team in Round 2.
Ultimately, if the NBA can simply resume games and cobble together a postseason, beggars won’t be choosers. This year’s champion is going to have an asterisk attached, regardless of the format, because of the long break due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 1-16 format might be a bit more agreeable for Boston if a handful of regular season games shifted the standings a bit.
The Celtics were a game behind the Clippers for the fourth-best record when the season paused and teams 11-13 are virtually tied at the moment. Drawing the Pacers instead of the 76ers, or the Nuggets instead of the Clippers, might be a tiny bit more agreeable — at least as we judge teams based on their potential from what we saw earlier in the season.
From an entertainment standpoint, it’s undeniable that the cross-conference matchups could add some tremendous intrigue.
The Celtics and Clippers played two tremendously entertaining games with a total of three overtimes during the regular season. Getting a best-of-seven series in Round 2 would be phenomenal from a viewer’s perspective.
What’s more, if Kyrie Irving were healthy enough to get back on the court, a first-round matchup between the Nets and Lakers would have some extra sizzle. One potential downside: A possible showdown between L.A. teams would require both squads to make the championship round of the 1-16 format instead of just the conference finals in the typical format (and the Lakers get a very agreeable path to that title round).
That this is even a debatable topic is an encouraging sign as the NBA explores ways to simply restart the season and crown a champion.