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The NBA's proposed playoff formats and what each would mean for the Portland Trail Blazers

How the NBA will look when it returns remains a mystery. Here's a look at a handful of options the league is considering.
Credit: Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press
Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum celebrates with teammates Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard during a game in 2018.

PORTLAND, Ore. — That the NBA will resume its season is not really a question anymore.

Sometime in July (or perhaps August, according to a recent report by Adrian Wojnarowski), NBA teams will take the court again, most likely at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on the Walt Disney World Resort property near Orlando, Florida.

How the NBA looks when it returns, however, remains a mystery. There are a handful of potential options the league office has presented to NBA general managers for consideration.

On Friday, the NBA's Board of Governors and NBA commissioner Adam Silver will meet. Though they aren't expected to finalize a decision on a return-to-play plan at that time, the decision on a final plan and a vote is likely coming soon.

Here's a look at the different scenarios and how each would impact the Portland Trail Blazers.

Group play

This potential format has been reported by The Athletic's Shams Charania, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, among others.

For the best deep dive into how the NBA could adopt group play, like that seen in the World Cup and the Olympics, for the first round of the playoffs, let's turn to this intriguing article by O'Connor.

O'Connor explains that in a group play format there could be 20 teams, in four groups of five. Teams would play each opponent in their group twice. The teams with the two best records at the end of group play would move on to the second round of the playoffs, at which point the best-of-7 series playoff rounds NBA fans are accustomed to would begin.

If the NBA adopted the group play format for the first round of the playoffs and stretched the group to 20 teams, that could include the 16 teams currently in playoff position as well as the Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs, the four teams with the next-best records.

"The survey sent to each general manager noted that "tiers" would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups," O'Connor writes.

That means teams with the best records, like the Bucks and Lakers, would be in Tier 1 and teams like the Blazers and Pelicans would be in Tier 5.

O'Connor created a mock draw using a random number generator and it placed the Tier 5 Blazers in a group with the Bucks (Tier 1), Jazz (Tier 2), Sixers (Tier 3) and Grizzlies (Tier 4).

It's a stretch to think the Blazers would advance from that group, even with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back. But it gives Portland a chance and Damian Lillard says that's all the Blazers want.

Straight to the playoffs

Another option under consideration is to ditch the remainder of the regular season and go straight the playoffs with the 16 teams currently in playoff position, potentially with teams being seeded 1-16 irrespective of conference affiliation.

If the NBA decides on this format, it would certainly draw the ire of Lillard, the Blazers and their fans. The Pelicans, Kings, Spurs and other teams still in playoff contention when the season was suspended would surely object as well.

Consider the case of the Pelicans and super rookie Zion Williamson. Williamson is one of the NBA's biggest draws and the Pelicans were only 3.5 games outside the playoff picture. Not only would the Pelicans and their fans be unhappy if New Orleans was on the outside looking in, it also seems unlikely the NBA would forego the opportunity to include Williamson in its return showcase.

This format doesn't take into consideration the possibility that the playoff standings may have shuffled in the remaining 15 to 20 games of the season.

When the season was suspended, the Grizzlies, currently in possession of the eighth seed, had one of the hardest remaining schedules in the NBA. Some of the teams chasing Memphis, including the Blazers, had among the easiest remaining schedules, and Portland had two games left against Memphis, both at home.

Play-in tournament

In this proposed format, the NBA would use a play-in tournament for the eighth seed or for the seventh and eighth seeds in one or both conferences.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban supports this idea and has proposed a plan that would bring back all 30 NBA teams to play five to seven regular season games before a play-in tournament for the final two playoff seeds.

"There would be two play-in matchups — either single games or a best-of-three series — pitting seeds 17 vs. 20 and 18 vs. 19. The winners would advance to play the 15th and 16th seeds for the final spot in the playoff bracket," ESPN reports.

Cuban said it's important to bring back every NBA team to play at least a handful of games because it would help more teams fulfill local television contracts.

Wojnarowski reports that the NBA could include the four Western Conference teams still in playoff contention — the Blazers, Pelicans, Spurs and Kings — but none from the Eastern Conference.

Would teams like the Wizards and Hornets, ranked ninth and 10th in the East, and the Suns — 13th in the West — be upset if they missed the cut? Probably. But an option that pleases everyone likely doesn't exist.

Bring back all 30 teams

Another proposal made to general managers last week, according to multiple reports, was a scenario in which all 30 teams would resume the regular season to finish with 72 or 76 games, and then the playoffs would begin, either with the normal 16 teams, or with an expanded play-in option to include 20 to 24 teams.

Bringing back all 30 teams looks like an unlikely scenario. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the NBA is coming around to the idea that when the league resumes its season, less is more.

"Privately, Silver has been considering the idea that there are plenty of sensible reasons to pare down the roster of teams in Orlando. First, there's safety. Fewer teams, fewer people to contract or spread the coronavirus — and less bad basketball. Even elite teams will be sloppy upon return, so what about the others?" Wojnarowski writes.

If this option was paired with a play-in option, it would work for the Blazers. They'd get 6-10 games to tune up for the playoffs and then have an avenue to advance in the postseason.

If the option didn't include a play-in option, though, it wouldn't work for Lillard and the Blazers because playing 6-10 games doesn't realistically give Portland enough time to make up a 3.5-game difference with the Grizzlies.

Jared Cowley is a senior digital producer at KGW. He writes about the Portland Trail Blazers and other topics and is the co-host of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast. You can reach him on Twitter @jaredcowley.

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