NBA playoffs need a draft and here's how it would look

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NBC Sports

NBA playoffs need a draft and here's how it would look

As the NBA finalizes its plans to restart in Orlando, it should pay close attention to what’s happening in Germany. 

On May 16, the Bundesliga became the first major soccer league to resume its season following the coronavirus shutdown and, to this point, the restart has gone off largely without a hitch. Unlike the NBA, where the focus has been resuming the season in a one-site campus, the Bundesliga is instead allowing teams to travel within German borders and play out its schedule in the teams’ respective home stadiums. What the two leagues have in common, however, is the absence of fans in attendance. 

And the results are fascinating.

Since the coronavirus shutdown, with no fans in attendance, home teams have won just 29.4 percent of their decided matches (not including those that ended in a draw). 

Before the coronavirus shutdown, with fans in attendance, home teams won 66.4 percent of their decided matches this season (not including those that ended in a draw).

That’s right. Home teams in Germany’s top soccer league have won just five of their 27 matches, with 10 matches ending in a draw and 12 outright defeats.

On Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund faced off against Bayern Munich at Westfalenstadion. The monstrous stadium holds 81,365 people, making it Germany’s largest stadium and the seventh-largest in all of Europe. On Tuesday, the stands were empty. Borussia Dortmund lost 1-0.

So far, home-field advantage has been decimated, even when you account for team superiority. According to Bundesliga bet tracking, road favorites are 7-0-2 (win-loss-draw) since play resumed while home favorites are a measly 5-5-8, using gambling data. Without fans rooting them on, the home underdog has yet to punch above its weight and pull off an upset.

This has important ramifications for the NBA, which is currently discussing different scenarios and playoff structures if and when the season resumes, but one constant has emerged: no fans. According to league sources, the NBA has not decided on a playoff format or given any indication to teams as to which direction it is leaning toward, but it’s clear that fans will not be allowed to attend.

This has important ramifications for the NBA, which is currently discussing different scenarios and playoff structures if and when the season resumes. According to league sources, the NBA has not decided on a playoff format or given any indication to teams as to which direction it is leaning toward.

There are many options on the table, including the traditional 16-team format divided into two conferences, a conference-free 1-thru-16 seeded tournament and an expansion involving 20, 24 or as many all 30 teams in some fashion. In conversations with several team execs, there’s an expectation that widening the playoff field would be partially motivated to include the starpower of Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently the West’s 10th seed, and Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, currently slotted 9th out West.

But when the NBA decides the playoff structure, it should seriously consider replenishing home-court advantage in some way.

In normal playoff circumstances, the higher-seeded team receives three perks: playing a worse (lower-seeded) team, playing on its home court first and enjoying Game 7 on the same home court. In a closed campus situation, the higher-seeded team won’t enjoy those last two perks, most notably that Game 7 factor. 

It’s been said that the two best words in all of sports is “Game 7,” but road teams aren’t trying to hear that. In 135 Game 7s in NBA playoff history, the home team has gone 106-29, for a win percentage of a whopping 78.5 percent. That’s a boost beyond the playoff norm; last postseason, the home team went 46-36, winning 56.1 percent of its games, a far cry from the observed Game 7 edge.

If teams convene in Orlando without fans in attendance, the higher-seeded team will lose one of its hard-earned benefits. That’s a problem.

Here’s a solution:

Reseed teams 1-through-16 (or 20 or 24) and let the higher-seeded teams (Nos. 1 through 8) choose their opponents in every round. 

The No. 1 seed would choose its opponent from a pool of the bottom half of the playoff field (eight teams in a 16-team playoff or 10 if the league decides to expand to 20 teams). The No. 2 seed would choose from the remaining teams and so on. You could broadcast the selections -- call it Selection Saturday if the NCAA doesn’t have rights to that as well -- in real-time, just like the NBA did for the All-Star draft.

“I absolutely love the idea,” said one Western Conference GM. “I love it now and I loved it then in the G League.”

For years, the NBA has long been intrigued by the choose-your-opponent idea. Beginning in the 2008-09 season, the G League (then called the NBA D-League) decided to spice things up for their eight-team playoff by letting the top three seeds choose their opponent from the bottom four seeds (the No. 4 team would face the lone remaining team). 

The experimental tweak actually stuck. For the next six postseasons, top seeds chose its first-round opponent based on matchups with unforeseen roster changes providing a key variable. In a minor-league system, NBA call-ups dramatically shifted the competitive landscape. A fifth-seeded team, for example, may have just lost its best player to the NBA, making it a more favorable draw than a fully-stacked eighth seed. 

Naysayers might argue that teams would be risk-averse cowards and wouldn’t choose anything but the lowest-seeded team possible. Why give any opponent even more bulletin board material? Why give them a chip on their shoulder?

Gamesmanship is part of the league’s DNA. This is a league that sees its playoff teams dress in funereal black for closeout games and taunt their Finals opponents for being sick. So it may not be a surprise that, more often than not, G League teams used their agency and picked a non-default opponent. 

Surprisingly, in six G League postseasons, the No. 1 seed didn’t choose the No. 8 seed four times, opting instead to play the No. 7 seed (three instances) and No. 6 seed (once). Among No. 1 seeds, picking a higher-seed backfired only once in 2012-13 when the No. 6 Austin Spurs swept the top-seeded Bakersfield Jam 2-0 in a three-game series. (The 2012-13 Spurs coach? Current Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins). 

Overall, among the 12 picks that weren’t the lowest-seed possible, only three backfired in upsets (25 percent upset rate). Of the six picks that chose the lowest-seed possible, two upsets occurred (33 percent upset rate). Choosing a higher-seeded opponent than the default option actually yielded fewer upsets. In other words, the chip-on-your-shoulder motivator actually didn’t result in more upsets.

The G League doesn’t operate this way anymore. Once the league moved into two conferences in 2014-15, they ditched the playoff format to more closely align the NBA’s two-conference playoff system. 

But it’s time to bring the idea back, in the big leagues. 

To be clear, this is not a shameless play for ratings and eyeballs. This is also a play for fairness. 

The league is sailing into uncharted waters here. The conditions in which teams played 65-ish games in the regular season will be vastly different than the environment in which they’re about to decide a champion. Several teams I’ve spoken to have mentally treated it as a separate season because the closed-campus circumstances promise to be so alien. 

The three-month shutdown will surely hit teams very differently. Will certain teams suffer unfortunate injuries in training camp or in the games leading up to the postseason? Will younger rosters be better off with fresher legs? Will veteran teams with playoff pedigree have an advantage? Will certain teams not have their head coach joining them in the playoffs because of coronavirus-related safety concerns? 

The coronavirus will have impacted teams in uneven ways. Will teams that were able to train in their practice facility early have an edge over teams that were forced to stay closed because of their market’s public health situation? Portland opened its complex on May 8, while Boston, Dallas and six other teams are still shut down as of May 28.

(Speaking of geographics, this shouldn’t be seen as a pandemic-only gimmick. If the league is worried about long-distance travel in strict 1-through-16 matchups down the line, letting travel-conscious teams pick opponents could naturally prune that problem away.) 

With so many uncertainties that will undoubtedly fog up the situation, the NBA should let top teams navigate the gray area on their own terms, just like the G League. At the very least, give them the choice -- anything to replenish some of that lost home-court edge, and sprinkle in some drama along the way.

* * * 

So what might a Selection Saturday look like for the NBA?

Here’s how I’d pick the matchups starting with the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks. Now, keep in mind, this is using current playoff teams if the season ended today. If the season resumed with regular-season games or restarted with group play, the playoff picture might look different. New Orleans could make a run. So could the Blazers. But for now, in this exercise, they’re out.

With the No. 1 overall selection, the Milwaukee Bucks select … the Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are in a bad spot. Kyrie Irving (shoulder surgery) and Kevin Durant (Achilles surgery) are expected to be sidelined. Former head coach Kenny Atkinson was fired two games before the shutdown and replaced by assistant coach Jacque Vaughn. The Nets weren’t allowed to open their practice facility until late May. 

This team might have a classic “Nobody Believes In Us” card (shouts to Bill Simmons). But there’s a reason no one believes in them. In these two teams’ lone meeting in late January, the Bucks won by 20. And that was in Brooklyn. With Irving. And only 25 minutes of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The juiciest part: Atkinson was Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer’s top assistant at their previous stop in Atlanta. Hire him, Bud. And have him announce the selection. 

No. 2. Los Angeles Lakers
Opponent: Orlando Magic

Remember, there are no fans in this hypothetical, so the only home cooking the Magic might enjoy is they won’t need to travel to the location. Even still, the Lakers would be wise to pick the team with the worst record in the playoff field. Yes, the Lakers lost their last meeting against the Magic, but Anthony Davis didn’t play and the Magic nearly blew a 21-point lead, hanging on to win by just one point. 

Interesting note: Davis has struggled against Nikola Vucevic in his career, winning just four of his 11 career matchups against the Orlando big man in his career. However, all of those games came when Davis was a member of the Pelicans. If the Magic get lockdown defender Jonathan Isaac back from a knee injury, I might think about going in a different direction, but in the end, 30-34 is 30-34.

No. 3 Toronto Raptors
Opponent: Memphis Grizzlies

The Marc Gasol Bowl. Or is it the Jonas Valanciunas revenge series? Either way, this matchup would be juicy. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and the young Grizz stunned the NBA this season en route to the No. 8 seed in the West, but the Raptors would have plenty of reason to choose Memphis beyond its lack of experience.

The Grizzlies’ 32-33 record is a tad inflated for a couple reasons. Their minus-0.6 net-rating is more reflective of a 30-35 team. Secondly, they had the most difficult remaining schedule in the entire NBA before the final 17 games were wiped out. The one team the Grizzlies didn’t face this season: the Raptors. Gasol’s long-awaited return to Memphis was supposed to happen Mar. 28, but the shutdown nixed that. Gasol hasn’t faced his former team since being traded in Feb. 2019. What better time than now?

No. 4 L.A. Clippers
Opponent: Indiana Pacers

There will be no fans to motivate Paul George with loud boos this time around. After George tallied 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a 11-point Clippers win in a bitter Indiana arena back in December, maybe that’s a good thing for the Pacers. The Clippers won that game handily despite not having Kawhi Leonard, who was resting on the second night of a back-to-back.

The Pacers will be short-handed as it is. About three weeks before the shutdown, Jeremy Lamb, one of the Pacers’ top scorers, went down with a brutal knee injury (torn ACL and lateral meniscus and fractured knee). It remains to be seen how Victor Oladipo will look after the long layoff, but the Clippers’ depth -- bolstered further with the additions of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris before the shutdown -- should overwhelm the Pacers, who were swept last season by Boston in the first round. 

No. 5 Boston Celtics
Opponent: Dallas Mavericks

The Celtics should be the loudest proponent of the pick-your-opponent format. If the league sticks with the traditional conference split for the playoffs, the third-seeded Celtics would, as of now, face the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. In a 1-through-16 format, as of now, the fifth-seeded Celtics would face ... the 12th-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. For a Celtics team that has lost three of the four games against Philly this season, that’d be a rough draw. 

The Mavericks figure to be an easier foe than the Sixers. The Celtics have won both matchups against Dallas this season, but Luka Doncic only played in one of those tilts. Kristaps Porzingis, who was still taking occasional games off to manage his injury recovery from a torn ACL, is one of those players I worry about when it comes to the long layoff and accelerated training camp. In the end, as long as the Celtics don’t draw Philly, it should be seen as a win.

No. 6 Denver Nuggets
Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder

I’m a little surprised Chris Paul’s new squad lasted this long in my draft, but they finally go off the board here. I don’t think the Nuggets are feeling great about any of the teams left -- Houston, OKC or Philly -- but the Thunder probably give them their best chance to prevail.

In two matchups this season, the Nuggets split the series 1-1 with their divisional rivals. So much of the Thunder’s success hinges on a 35-year-old Paul staying healthy in these unusual circumstances. With him on the floor the Thunder are plus-295 this season; with Paul on the bench, they are minus-138, per NBA.com. To me, this late in the draft, it’s all about picking your poison and the Thunder feel like the least dangerous choice of the bunch.

No. 7 Utah Jazz 
Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers

The Jazz better hope that there aren’t any regular-season games in Orlando, because I could easily see them losing a few games and being one of the first teams picked in this type of draft. Utah’s sharpshooter, Bojan Bogdanavich, is out after undergoing wrist surgery and who knows where the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell feud ends up.

Philly is one of the few matchups where I feel Rudy Gobert could excel. Houston’s new five-out system would threaten Gobert’s ability to stay on the floor, despite his Defensive Player of the Year chops. Here are Gobert’s plus-minus numbers in his most recent games against Houston: minus-12, minus-6, minus-15, minus-15, plus-2, plus-6, minus-20, minus-23 and minus-15. Anything but Houston. 

No. 8 Miami Heat
Opponent: Houston Rockets

The Heat land the Rockets in a straight 1-through-16 format and they land them again here. The Rockets stumbled before the season shut down, losing three of their final four games, but I still wouldn’t want anything to do with the Rockets’ new look, especially if James Harden looks this fit when play resumes. 

If regular-season games are played, the 41-24 Heat could fall into the bottom half of the board and would be ripe for the picking given the way their defense fell apart in February. Only 2.5 games separate the Jazz, Heat, Pacers, Sixers, Thunder, Rockets and Mavericks in the standings, so this pack of teams could be shuffled dramatically if there’s some sort of lead-up into the postseason. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.