By JEFF GOLDBERG|
Should the NBA plan to send 22 teams to Orlando to resume and complete the 2020 season actually come to fruition on July 30, the drama on the court should quickly outpace any coronavirus talk off it.
The league has agreed to a 22-team format that will play all its games at the Disney Resort compound in Orlando, Fla., with four rounds of playoffs to determine an NBA champion.
But the playoffs will only feature 16 of the 22 teams invited to Orlando, meaning that some teams are still battling for the No. 8 seeds in the NBA standings, with one spot up for grabs in each conference.
The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacrament Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns all are within six games of the No. 8 seed Memphis Grizzlies in the West, while the Washington Wizards are 5.5 games back of the No. 8 seed Orlando Magic in the East.
In order to finish the regular season to determine the final playoff berths, the league will have all 22 teams play eight games, staggered over a few weeks.
In both conferences, if the No. 9 seed is at least four games behind the No. 8 seed after the eight regular season games, the No. 8 seed will automatically move on to the playoffs. If not, the teams would have a play-in tournament that's double-elimination for the No. 8 seed and single-elimination for the No. 9 seed.
The real race is in the West, with the six-team race for one spot. Here is a look at three teams most likely to make the necessary run to keep their season alive, and perhaps make a sharp bet in the process.
Memphis Grizzlies -150
From a schedule point of view, Memphis is in the driver's seat, holding a 3 1/2 game lead over their three closest pursuers. Even if they went 0-8, a team like Portland, New Orleans or Sacramento would have to go 4-4 to force a playoff. They should still be able to get into the play-in tournament no matter how they come out of the gates. That alone is why they are such favorites to get into the 8th spot.
But Memphis has the third-worst winning percentage against teams' over-.500, and they play six of those teams based on the current schedule. So despite their favored status, they could well drop enough games to allow another team to sneak within the necessary four-game range. Who are the teams most likely to do so?
New Orleans Pelicans +400
Some say that one of the main reasons that the NBA is doing this version of the format to finish off the season is to keep rookie sensation Zion Williamson in the mix, and they're almost certainly correct. The Pelicans have solid pieces and an experienced coach in Alvin Gentry to guide them through this.
Schedule-wise, they control much of their own destiny, facing Memphis twice, Sacramento twice, the Spurs once and the Magic once.
If the schedule holds and Orlando is their final opponent, there is a good chance that the Magic have will have already clinched a play-in spot. This would mean they have nothing to play for, and would be a huge advantage for the Pelicans. They went 6-6 during the regular season (second highest of remaining teams) vs. its projected opponents, so they should fare well with the schedule. The Pelicans also went 2-0 vs. the Grizzlies.
Portland Trail Blazers +800
If you are looking for a longshot, the Blazers are calling your name. While Portland might be a sexy pick, there is a reason for it. They have an experienced coach in Terry Stotts. And, above all else, they have one of the best backcourts in the game in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Carmelo Anthony also brings a veteran presence and they get Jusuf Nurkic back from a broken leg. If he is healthy, he and Hassan in the frontcourt would be a load for anyone to handle.
This is a squad that has been there before, as they made it to the conference finals last season before losing to the Golden State Warriors. I've looked at the schedule and if they can just start off hot, they have a real chance to get into the play-in.