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How Should the NBA Conduct the 2020 Playoffs and Lottery?

If the league has to resume, is there a way to do it fairly, but still sanely?

2014 NBA Draft Photo by Jesse. D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA is making all kinds of noise about resuming the 2019-20 regular season and the 2020 NBA Playoffs. COVID-19 is of paramount concern while doing so, but today’s Mailbag question asks about the other end of the equation: how to resume and conclude fairly in basketball terms?

Let’s take a look.


If games are coming back I want to know how you’d do it, not for coronavirus but for basketball? Let’s assume that you have to have games or at least playoffs. How would you set it up?

I know you’ve said a 2 team playoff but if there has to be more, like at least a full playoffs, how would you determine who gets in and how would you play it?

Thanks, I’m 14 and I love the site!


Thanks, Sammy!

The first thing I’d do is declare the regular season over, period. We’re not getting 30 teams together for any reason. Records and standings are frozen where the season left off.

Then, assuming we HAD to play because they were going to anyway, I would implement a system that kept as few people together as possible while incentivizing participants and (almost) everyone who got screwed by the truncated season.

We’ll only go into safety measures in the most general terms here. I’m not an expert. I’ll not claim to know a system to keep everyone “safe”. I doubt that’s possible. We’ll go with limiting exposure as best we can, assuming testing and other isolation protocols in place. Whatever the NBA was going to do while resuming the regular season, they’re assumed to do here. I’m just dealing with the basketball end.

Here’s how I’d do it.

The Ladder

Assuming that the playoffs were going to happen with a large number of teams (read: more than just the top two in each conference), I’d want to limit exposure while giving everyone a chance and making their participation meaningful.

I’d propose a hybrid system that starts with a play-in ladder, then changes to standard format after the play-in was done.

The playoffs participants would be the top eight teams in each conference, as would normally happen. Instead of seeding 1 vs. 8, though, lower seeds play each other in order to “keep the court” and advance to the next matchup.

We’d start with #7 playing #8 in each conference. Series would be best 2 of 3. Assuming we were at a single site, games would happen on alternate days: Eastern Conference, then Western Conference. If one series finishes before the other, no problem. That team gets an extra day of rest. Teams would always get at least one day off before their next game.

The winner of the 7-8 matchup would then face the #6 seed, also in a Best-of-3. That winner would face the 5-seed, with the series increasing to Best-of-5. That winner would face the 4th seed, also in a five-game series.

At that point, every team from the 4th-8th seed would have a chance to earn a spot among the final four in their conference. The 8th seed would have had to win four series to do it, the 4th seed only one, but that’s the way it goes.

Once the play-in ladder was complete, the top three seeds and the winner of the play-in ladder in each conference would conduct the playoff brackets as normal, with Best-of-7 series, 1 vs. 4 seeding, 2 vs. 3. Winners play each other. Winners of that play in the NBA Finals.

Until you get to the final, seeded playoffs bracket, only four teams are active on site at a given time. New teams know when they’ll be coming in and can prepare/quarantine accordingly. The final bracket involves eight teams, but all of those teams would have a month to prepare, test, and isolate while the play-in ladder was ongoing.

The only hitch in the proceedings is that the Sixers and Pacers are tied for 5-6 in the East, the Thunder and Rockets for the same positions in the West. They could either pursue the playoff tiebreaking formula, go by strength of schedule, or play a single game against each other before the playoffs began to break the tie in seeding.

Teams below the 8th seed might argue that they should be allowed in a play-in as well, but that lengthens the process to infinity and doubles the number of participants. Fortunately for us, there’s a pretty significant break between the 8th and 9th positions in each conference, so holding the line after the 8th seed is easier.

The Lottery

We have a bonus for those “just missed the playoffs” teams though. I’d also change the draft lottery system this year to smooth out the odds for each team getting a high pick. I have a few rationales:

  1. Since the season couldn’t be completed, we don’t know who would end up in which position. Several teams in the bottom half of the league are locked tightly together, separated by 0-2 losses.
  2. The playoff ladder provides its own remedy to uncertainty for upper-half teams. You may be disadvantaged by getting a lower seed and having to play an extra series, but you can play your way out of that disadvantage by winning. If you really were significantly better and would have passed your opponent in the standings had the season been completed, hopefully it’ll still show in the playoffs. The lottery allows no such remedy. It’s a random drawing based on static ranks which were cut off artificially when the season ended early.
  3. The differences in lottery odds can be significant depending on positioning. Two sppts plus or minus can double/half your chances. Consequences are too high to stick to that system when there are this many unknowns about how the season would have ended.
  4. This year, at least, we want to reward teams that actually won them incentive to continue doing so and a consolation for not being able to see if they could crack the playoffs.

Given this, I’d propose two alterations.

  • We draw lottery balls for the first six picks, not just the first three.
  • Odds of getting your number drawn are based on number of wins out of the total rather than order alone.

We’d still want worse teams to have a bigger chance at a high pick than better teams. That’s a fundamental principle of the lottery. We just want it to smooth out and correlate more with records.

It’d work like this:

  1. List all 14 lottery teams, in order, based on number of wins. Portland would be at the top with 29, Golden State at the bottom with 15.
  2. Determine how many wins each team had as a percentage of the total. Between them, the 14 lottery teams won 321 games this year. Portland’s 29 wins accounts for 9.0% of them, Golden State’s 15 wins for 4.6%
  3. After the percentages are determined, leave them in place, but invert the team order, leaving the Blazers with Golden State’s percentage, the Warriors with Portland’s, and everyone else in between. That’s the percentage for your number to be drawn in the lottery.

Here’s what the new percentages would look like compared to the traditional:

Admittedly, there’s something dissatisfying about the Blazers thinking, “Wait a minute...we won games so the Warriors could get a better chance at a pick?” But this system does have the advantage of smoothing out not just the overall percentage gap, but the gap between individual spaces. Even if a team would have finished a slot better or worse had the regular season been completed, the difference isn’t that great.

The system keeps the traditional gradation between better and worse. It just modifies the definition and severity of “better” and “worse” by the actual distribution of wins among the teams instead of using an arbitrary, pre-determined percentage by rank order.

After the first six spots were drawn randomly, the final eight team would fall in by reverse order of record, just as happens normally.

I would only use this system in this particular, COVID-19 circumstance. It’s not suitable for a normal year because it could be gamed. Upper teams really wouldn’t want to win and give lower teams a better chance. Lower teams would want to win, I suppose, but that wouldn’t make up for the weirdness. Under these once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, though, I think this system would be fairer than the one in place.

Thanks for the question! Looking forward to doing more of them soon, after the Top 100 completes!