Wheels are spinning towards the relaunch of the NBA season. In which direction? For now, all of them.
Faced with a task unprecedented in logistical and financial scale, several formats for resuming and resolving the 2019-20 campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic have emerged, all centered around Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort as a likely bubble site. Returning 30 teams to tie a bow on an abbreviated regular season “has lost momentum, but still has significant lobby,” according to Adrian Wojnarowski. Skipping straight to a 16-team playoff? There’s a “good chance” of that, according to Brian Windhorst, though securing the necessary owner votes to do away with conference alignment could prove a long shot. On Tuesday, the possibility of a 20-team playoff that would replace the first round with a World Cup-esque “group stage” was extensively detailed by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. Other pool play options were offered up in a past canvassing conducted by the league.
Some players and teams, regardless of positioning, are reportedly itching to play. Some would sooner be inclined to avert the risk of infection inextricable from bumping bodies without proper competitive incentive — most prominently (and publicly), Damian Lillard.
All in all, there’s a whole lot on the table. But the league doesn’t yet appear near a consensus with calls reportedly slated with general managers and the Board of Governors on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
The Bulls, for their part, are paused comfortably in purgatory. Should they be included in the NBA’s resumption plan, it could afford a sliver more time for the revamped front office to evaluate personnel and the coaching staff, and perhaps a sliver more excitement for a fanbase left wanting in that department this season. At the same time, this team is no title contender — even a de facto playoff berth would likely be short-lived — and the prospect of a month-or-more long training camp schedule leading up to five-to-seven games of (in the grand scheme) meaningless basketball could introduce excessive and unnecessary risk to players — many of whom are currently out-of-market — and staff. Scurrying straight to the offseason would potentially afford one of the youngest teams in the NBA a nine-month layoff between this season and next, and allow the new braintrust to fully plunge into draft preparation and long-term planning, both along the roster and on Jim Boylen’s fate.
That all leaves us with heads full of ideas, but not much in the way of certainty. Here, at least, are the options the NBA is reportedly mulling, and how the Bulls could fit into them:
All 30 teams resume regular season
In his most recent report, Wojnarowski pinpointed 72 games as the NBA’s target goal if they pursue some closure for the regular season. At 22-43, that would leave the Bulls with seven remaining games, a perfectly average figure. Their 65 games already played is two less than the teams with the most games completed (Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks), and two more than those with the least (Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs). Who the Bulls’ remaining games would be against is unknowable for the time being.
In the interest of recouping lost revenue, sucking all 30 teams into a hypothetical bubble is likely attractive to the league — doing so exponentially multiples the number of telivisable games, and if the astronomical ratings for TNT’s “The Match” are any indication, interest will be immense regardless of matchup. But it also doubles the amount of variables necessary to maintain the wellbeing of everyone involved from athletes to coaches to accommodation staff and beyond.
With no non-playoff team in either conference within 3.5 games of a berth (the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans all rest 3.5 back of the Memphis Grizzlies), the cost of that risk for anyone outside the top 16 is indeed the question.
Skipping straight to a 16-team playoff
Which brings us to the tidiest of the solutions reportedly on the table: fast-forwarding straight to a 16-team playoff. Less teams, less variables, less risk (though a healthy amount of that persists no matter the format). Seeded independent of conference, here’s what that could look like — though the more likely scenario is probably keeping the conference alignment as is:
Paused 8.5 games behind the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls would fall well short of involvement in a jump straight to the postseason.
World Cup style
Here inlies the most ambitious of the proposals picking up steam, but creativity is commissioner Adam Silver’s MO. In this format, as detailed by O’Connor, the first round of the postseason would be replaced by a “group stage” wherein the teams with the best 20 records in the league would be divided up into five groups (four teams each). From there, each four-team grouping would compete in respective eight-game round robins, with the two best records from each group moving on to a bracketed, eight-team playoff.
The pros: It’s an exciting, inventive idea that could drive interest up, conjure 80 surefire compelling games and satiate fringe playoff teams (Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio) aggrieved by having their seasons cut short.
The cons: Four extra teams increases risk, and it introduces tremendous potential for upsets and general randomness that could impact top seeds. Continuing to punish elite teams that will already be operating without their hard-earned homecourt advantage feels slightly backward.
Frankly, this format would be a ton of fun. But regardless of whether it comes to fruition, the Bulls, currently paused with the 24th-best record in the NBA, would be on the outside looking in.
Other pool play options
That 22-43 mark, though, could sneak them into a potential 24-team “Playoffs Plus,” a format Shams Charania of The Athletic reported as being on a recent survey circulated by the league to general managers — and a bracket size the NHL just announced for their season.
Any 30-team play-in tournament could feature the Bulls, as well, though an exact layout for that possibility remains to be determined. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe combined to report that the league is considering pool play options that would involve anywhere from 16 to all 30 teams — possibly utilizing a structure akin to the group stage layout enumerated above.
In any event, more clarity should come soon, with GM and Board of Governors calls scheduled for Thursday and Friday, respectively. In the meantime, the season of speculation marches on.